The purpose of traveling is more than just being in and seeing different places. The road can be just as interesting the destination, and it’s the part that’s usually much less talked about. Traveling on a budget means always looking for the most economical way to get from A to B, often at the expense of comfort or pace. Taking long-distance buses or trains, hitchhiking or ridesharing, and traveling overland whenever possible. In my experience however, the cheapest journeys are usually the interesting and unique ones, for better or for worse.
The way from Thailand into Laos turned out to be a particularly memorable one. After an overnight stay in a dodgy Thai border town that included Cards Against Humanity, four Israelis and a nightly swimming pool party, I found myself boarding the slow boat that would take us up the Mekong river to Luang Prabang. This two-day boat ride is one of the most mesmerizing journeys I’ve ever experienced. On both sides of the river lush, jungle-clad mountains shot into the air, their jagged peaks cutting up the sky. It reminded me of the might of the Norwegian fjords, yet in a more exotic setting. Yes, the boat was slightly overcrowded and yes the engine noise in the back was like the sound of a thousand cats in heat, but those were minor annoyances at most. It wasn’t in any way an active trip, I mostly read or slept or talked with fellow passengers, or simply looked out at the amazing landscape unfolding everywhere around me. Overnight we stayed in a little town with a single bar where every traveler converged, drinking and talking in the cliché common travel spirit.
At the end of the next day, we finally reached Luang Prabang. A former French colonial enclave, the town has an eclectic architecture mixing in Oriental and Western elements. The food is similarly influenced, resulting in a wide availability of baguettes and patisseries alongside the more typical Lao cuisine. I had been expecting Laos to be cheaper than Thailand, but it turned out that the influx of middle-aged Western package tourists has driven up the prices in this idyllic hillside hideout considerably. This realization caused brief despair amongst a binge-drinking British gang staying in the guesthouse, at least until our joint discovery of the miracle of Lao-lao, the traditional Lao whisky.
Lao-lao is a miracle, as evidenced by its holy trinity of outstanding properties. First, it is incredibly smooth. Despite containing 40% of alcohol, it tastes about as strong as a sip of white wine. Second, it is outrageously cheap. A one-liter bottle of the stuff will set you back about 25 000 Kip, or 2.50 Euro. It should be obvious how insane this price is. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it does not give you a hangover. This last property was rigorously tested by independent observers and found to hold under even the most extreme circumstances. Add to that the acceptable taste and wide availability and here is a drink that will forever live in infamy in most backpacker’s hazy recollections.
Up to this day the whole of Laos still has a strict curfew imposed on its entertainment venues, which means that all restaurants, bars and night clubs are forced to close before midnight. This also means that there are usually one or two places who manage to stay open later, through a mix of connections and bribes to local authorities. In Luang Prabang this place was a bowling alley. As surreal as it may sound, a typical night for most backpackers would start in the popular outdoor Utopia bar, and around 11pm anyone keen to continue their evening would get shipped out in a horde of tuk tuks… to go bowling. The scenes at this alley were among the strangest I have seen at any party on this trip so far. Without going into too much detail I can safely say that I will never look at bowling the same way again.
Obviously I have to mention the currencies in Laos and Vietnam, which walk a fine line between awesome and ridiculous. For the first time in my life I can call myself a multi-millionaire, handing out 10 000 Kip or Dong bills as if they’re mere pennies (which they are). A history of hyperinflation has created a system where people have become used to paying several thousand units for a bottle of water, and even omit the multiplier altogether when talking prices.
After obtaining my Vietnamese visa I got out of LP and headed south to Vang Vieng. Once the most notorious backpacker town in the world, Vang Vieng is set next to a leisurely flowing river, in an evergreen valley surrounded by the trademark Lao mountain ranges. Its glory days are long behind it, although calling them glorious would be misplaced at best. The outrageous consumption of drugs and alcohol combined with uncontrolled sprawling river bar entertainment like cliff jumping, ziplining and tubing led to the death of over twenty backpackers in one summer. Today, the tubing still exists – and it is absolutely fantastic – but most bars have been closed and their entertainment along with them. I spent a couple of interesting days here, tubing (responsibly) and partying (irresponsibly). It’s a place where many backpackers get stuck, perhaps similar to a jungle version of Goa, yet to me it came across exactly as authorities intend for it to be these days, a ghost of its former self.
The journey out of Laos could not have been more different than the one entering. Thirty one hours on a sleeper bus is not an experience I would willingly submit myself to, but budget considerations provided enough incentive to choose this over flying into Hanoi. We set off, myself perched on a three-person upper bunk in the back of the bus, next to the toilet, with fifty other passengers cramped into tiny reclining beds. Stopping only twice, apart from the early-morning border crossing which took four hours to clear, we thundered along winding mountain roads through the thick jungle covering the inland roads between Laos and Vietnam. It was a journey I will never forget.
Thank God for the miracle of Lao whisky.
November 30th, 2016