Country Roads: Luang Prabang to Vientiane, via Pak Lai

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Recovered from our respective illnesses, Tay and I tuk-tuk to the southern Luang Prabang bus station to begin a three-day trip to the capital through the southwest corner of northern Laos. The idea is break from the company of our fellow Vientane-bound farangs, 99.9 percent of whom opt for the well-trodden path through Vang Vieng.

After the last few months on the Southeast Asia tourist trail, we’re hungry for a few days in the Laos countryside; somewhere where we can experience the rewards and challenges of being the only foreigners in town (and on the bus, in the hotel, on the boat, etc.), where nobody speaks English, and where the only available amenities are those demanded by local residents.

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Demanding this type of travel experience is somewhat hypocritical; I know this. So is complaining about crowds of tourists when I choose to take the more popular routes. The author of Lonely Planet Laos, Joe Cummings, decries “this attitude that you’re going to find some untouched part of Asia that no one else will see, that it will be your own private little experience — that’s such a hypocritical, counterproductive, selfish, delusional, Western idea.” But getting away from the crowds is still a different experience than being a part of them, so I embrace my exploratory delusions and set out into the country.

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The first leg is a cramped, five-hour bus ride to Sayabouri, the highlight of which is driving the entire loaded bus onto a ferry to cross a swift section of the Mekong River. Sayabouri itself is a flat, provincial capital surrounded by stunning palms and green hills; there is nothing to do but walk the streets, buy fruit in the market, take photos of children, and try—unsuccessfully—to order a vegetarian meal at a riverside restaurant, where we are forced to send back heaping plates of gristly moo (pork). Our hotel is an anomalous, grand but faded affair, whose $5 rooms have lovely balconies and views of the mountains, but whose walls and corners are disgustingly neglected.

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The next morning’s beauty is startling as low clouds lie in front of the hills to the east, whose ridgeline is softly silhouetted against the rising sun; I note all this as we pull into the “bus station,” where we proceed to wait over an hour for our songtaew (converted pickup) to fill with passengers. Tay says it reminds her of the bush taxi system in Africa. I sip on black, tarry Lao coffee, take pictures of babies, and practice speaking Lao numbers with the vendors until it’s time to go.

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Tay rides shotgun and I squeeze onto one of the benches in the back; we roll through dozens of stilted thatch villages, stopping in one to fix a flat tire; then we’re back on the dusty road, everybody raising bandanas and jacket collars each time we enter the dust cloud of a passing truck. There is one military checkpoint, where only Tay and I are asked for our passports; the soldiers are young, smiling, and eager to show off their English, then send us on our way.

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On the outskirts of Pak Lai, we are transferred into a three-wheeled, motorcycle-pulled tuk-tuk, which carries us to the couple of guesthouses on the river, the first of which we reject, the second we welcome gladly. The $4 room with private bath and cold shower is in a large attic-space, a bit dingy, but the balcony boasts an expansive view of the Mekong below and the rising hills to the west, which recede into the Nam Phoum forest and the recently disputed border area with Thailand.

Our hotel in Pak Lai, seen from the river:
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Pak Lai is a river port town, and must also be a municipal capital, judging from the old wooden government ministry buildings, each bearing its name in Lao and French, as well as the national flag of Laos and the red-and-yellow hammer and sickle. We visit one temple ground, where teenage novice monks practice their English, even taking out their school books to try to communicate, then we walk back to the river, eat some noodle soup (having found that “foe” is the safest meal to order, we eat it for seven consecutive meals), watch part of an outdoor wedding ceremony, and go to bed to the sound of crickets, frogs, and a horribly out-of-tune wedding band.

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The next day’s slow boat is similar to the trip from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang, except without the beer and iPods, and with decidedly less chatter to compete with the engine’s drone. The ride lasts nine hours, the seats are hard, and lunch is a can of chillied tuna that we picked up in Pak Lai.

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Pulling up to the river bank in Vientiane, we realize that we have no idea where to go. We actually do not have a guidebook; I’d only copied a few guesthouse names and Lao phrases out of a borrowed copy in Luang Prabang and neglected to read up on Vientane. We are surrounded by eager tuk-tuk drivers in the golden light of late afternoon, but have no idea where we want to go. Finally, a translator appears and tells one of the drivers to take us to the riverfront area with all the hotels; there, we rejoin our backpacking brethren, not a single one of whom we have seen since leaving Luang Prabang three days ago.

Our hotel balcony in Pak Lai; that’s a towel, not a sarong:
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