Although I had originally switched up my plans, in part to avoid the slow boat on the Mekong I later found myself there anyway. After the multiple vomit inducing, seemingly ever ending bus rides I dealt with in Vietnam and Laos I was ready for a change of pace. Multiple sources (travel blogs, guidebooks and others I'd met along the way) informed me that taking the slow boat was a must during my visit to Laos, thank Cambodia - Angkor, Egypt - The Pyramids. Given these great reviews I figured I had better give it a shot.
Although it's probably one of the top stops for most tourists visiting Luang Prabang, after nearly two weeks in the city (on and off) I had yet to visit Kuang Si Waterfall. I knew it was one of the must see destinations in town but my motivation for traveling out there was severely lacking. Mostly I was just being super lazy in figuring out what method of transport I wanted to take (tuk-tuk, mini van, bike, hike, motorbike), it seriously seemed like the possibilities were endless. I was nearing the end of my time in Luang Prabang and thought I might not actually make it out to see the gorgeous falls , that is ,before one of the boys from Big Brother Mouse saved the day.
After my adventures in Phonsovan and Vang Vieng I returned to Luang Prabang where I began to spend more and more time at Big Brother Mouse. As I volunteered there I developed duel feelings of both hope and frustration. The boys attending the conversation classes showed such enthusiasm to learn and improve their English, even if it meant give up other things to do so. I've definitely come to realize how often 'we' (many developed countries) take our opportunities for education for granted. Learning can come for free but to have a proper education there's always a price to pay.
After spending a few days with my travel buddies at Pan's Place I knew it was time for me to cross the river and check out the other side. Before meeting my Canadian counterparts my plan was to spend a few quiet days at Maylyns guesthouse on the east side of the river and I still intended to do so. After saying our goodbyes and making the trek across the bridge I found myself in the waiting area only to be ignored. However, once the staff found time for me and I walked through the gates towards the rooms I knew that I'd be staying for a few days.
During my four months of travel through the Indochina peninsula I met many travelers who had already been to Laos, all of whom had their own opinions and suggestions. Upon hearing that I was soon headed there myself their first question was generally "Are you going to Vang Vieng?" aka are you tubing? Over the years Vang Vieng has become a bit of a legend among backpackers on the SE Asian backpacking trail. Once the epicenter for drugs, drinking and 'chilling out', it has now relaxed a bit while keeping a portion of that old 'charm'.
The main purpose of my long winding bus ride to Phonsovan was to witness the mystery that is the Plain of Jars. Upon arriving in the city it was obvious that I was traveling during low season, where were all the people? Two other foreigners joined me on a tuk-tuk into town where we were soon the 'Guesthouse hunt'. We walked from place to place, thinking that surely there had to be something for cheaper than 50,000 kip, but finally settled on Kong Keo after one of their friendly workers, Mr. Veomany recruited us off the side of the street corner.
After making my departure from Luang Prabang I decided to venture 8 hours Southeast to the unassuming town of Phonsovan. This town doesn't fly completely under the radar when it comes to places worth stopping in Laos, but it is one of the lesser traveled roads. The main draw here are some really big jars which were the focus of my visit, sounds weird I know. Upon entering and exploring the town I learned more about Laos than I ever could have dreamed and couldn't wait to share it, opening others eyes to the tragedy this small country must endure.
After one day in Luang Prabang I started to wonder if I would once again be packing up my bags sooner than expected and moving on, but then I remembered Big Brother Mouse. I stumbled across this place months before taking my trip but stored it in the back of my mind knowing that I'd have to pay a visit. The organization has an impressive story, beginning as the brain child of one eager boy, Khamla and has now become quite an impressive venture. The major intent of the organization is both publishing and distributing books, making them accessible to children all over Laos. As I read the story of how they began it hit me that I never considered some children grow up without access to story book. Kids in America (and other developed) nations may scoff when they get a book as a gift, but to some children that could be the gift of a lifetime. Aside from book production BBM also offers free English lessons and resources to students in the city. From 9am - 11am and 5pm - 7pm students are allowed to come and read books and newspapers or practice their English with volunteers (if any come).
I'm always hesitant when talking to other travelers before visiting a city, of course I want to get some ideas: where to go, what to do and where to eat, but I also don't want their perception to alter or affect mine. The ideal destination for one person may be hell for another, this is especially true when the travelers are not encountering the city at the same time. There are way too many variables left unaccounted for: travel companions (or lack there of), accommodation, weather, length of stay, and the list goes on. Before arriving in Luang Prabang some told me that I'd "Absolutely love the city" while other were adamant that "You only need a few days", leaving me nothing but confused. I thought I'd lean towards the first end of the spectrum, especially after reading some great travel blogs, but there was only one way to find out.
Successfully navigating my way downstream with Mr. Neat I then found myself in the tiny town, Muang Ngoi wondering what to do. This post left me with excitement for the town but when I arrived that excitement started to dwindle. I found a beautiful room immediately (thanks to the eager woman that pulled me in) although it was more expensive than I was anticipating or hoping. Once settled in my room I decided to explore the town and that’s when I started to realize what a difference low and high season can make in small places like this. It seemed that half of the guesthouses and restaurants decided to call it quits as there were just not enough tourist to support them staying open. The streets were reminiscent of a ghost town and I only spotted a handful of tourists in the few open restaurants, where was everybody?
Often overlooked on the backpacker trail, this is a destination to not be missed. Without the influence of 7/11, Mc Donalds or Starbucks this is a country that offers a raw, rich experience.