Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vang Vieng as a Dreamscape


Upon arrival in Vang Vieng, I took a jumbo (tuktuk) with a Thai guy who thought I was a college student on holiday (Come on, man. What’s a college student doing in Vang Vieng at this month? Researching for his college thesis?). I wasn’t sure where to go. There were a couple of hotels on my list. I opted to check out Lonely Planet’s most recommended budget dwelling, Maylin Guesthouse. But the driver said that it was far from the main road. That he will take me to a street, then I can walk from there. Sounded like one sketchy deal. He was asking for 10,000 kip more than the Thai. Ten minutes later, we were at the High Street in the heart of town. 


Vang Vieng hasn’t named their streets. Walang pangalan ang mga daan eh! At least I didn’t notice any. There were few vehicles plying the main street. This is a town for walkers. I saw a few tourists on rented bikes. For purposes of reference, the street pattern of the town is shaped like the capital letter T, with its head facing west. I shall call the "T-tail" as the High Street. If you go further from the T-head, you will reach the Song River (Nam Song). I saw a map from some website and it looked more complicated. It’s really way simpler navigating it. I came to Vang Vieng with hardly any preparation. No maps, no detailed plan.


When the driver dropped the Thai guy at Dok Khoun 1 Guesthouse, I decided to check it out. Maylin Guesthouse seemed way off the town center. Lonely Planet and Wikipedia have Dok Khoun on their list so it couldn’t be bad. Indeed I soon found out that it wasn’t! The main street is flocked by other guesthouses and tour operators, restaurants and souvenir shops. Despite that, it felt like one sleepy town. I was ushered into an average-sized room at the second storey. From my window, I can see the towering karst limestones. Not bad for a $5.60 (45,000 kip). I’m told that there were cheaper ones available ($3) with a communal bathroom outside. No, thank you. I prefer unlimited access to my own bathroom. As budget rooms go, this will do. It's far from being the perfect place. The paint is chipping off. The electric wires are clumsily pasted on the wall. And the toilet-flush drains incompletely, if you know what I mean. Having said that, I was aware that this wasn’t a luxury tour afterall. 

Once refreshed, I headed to the High Street . Caucasians leisurely walking around in their shorts and flipflops. Shops advertising local tours, cave visits, kayaking and tubing activities. There were a couple of ATM machines although I couldn’t find a post office. I looked for Vang Vieng souvenir shirts, but couldn’t find one either. This town is still on the verge of losing its soul to commercial excesses.

There are more than 40 guesthouses around so a reservation is hardly required or needed. But I have a feeling this will change very soon. Vang Vieng is, after all, considered as the backpacking capital of Laos; the tubing capital of Asia. Now that people – like myself – have heard of it, things can only get busier.

Number 17 is Maylin Guesthouse. Number 5 is Dok Khoun, my guesthouse. The marked letter T is the High Street. The broken white line near number 34 (Thavornsouk guesthouse) is the Song Bridge. The arrow is the Main Highway going towards the Bus Station. Vientiane the capital is headed south. Number 7 is Wat Kang where I had a full-on monk encounter.


I went westward. I saw jumbos carrying layers of tubes (inflated inner tubes of tractor tires). Salbabida po. River-bound tourists. I turned right at the end of the road. There were stores selling market produce, fish, grilled bits of pork and chicken, coconut drinks, juices. As I didn’t have a map, I mentally noted the turns on the road. The temples didn’t have English labels. There were monk novices doing their chores. Some were sweeping the grounds. I didn’t see other tourists sneaking about. Ako lang. I turned to one of the side streets and came into a footbridge. The Song River flows southwards under it. Then someone tapped my shoulder. It's the Korean guy I met at the border! He had a wide grin on his face and eagerly shook my hand. He just came from Vientiane, while I am headed there - from here. It felt like seeing an old friend. Ang saya. It was bound to happen, meeting the same people traveling within the loop (this is a loop that most backpackers follow and includes Pakse, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Phonsavanh). Further along, I ran into the Thai guy from the bus station. He told me that he had visited Maylin Guesthouse, and that i would have to cross a pay-bridge to get to the other side. I said I will check it out myself.


I saw another temple - Wat Kang. Although I wasn’t too keen on admiring another, it wasn’t a bad preoccupation when you’re just discovering a place on your own. Some young monks said hello. They were a friendly bunch. There wasn’t a lot of conversations, but sign language sufficed. Heck, they can’t even tell me the name of the wats (temples). Not long after, I was taking their photographs. They would become some of my favorite photos from this trip. I didn’t have to retrace my path as I later found myself back in the High Street. I trudged back to the riverside and headed south this time. It was an unhurried walk. Then I saw another bridge, bigger and wider – the Song Bridge. The view across the river is picture perfect. You can hardly get a bad photo from such beautiful landscape. I paid 4,000 kip (for foreigners) to cross the bridge to the other side. Locals pay 1,000 kip. Bicycles are charged 7,000 kip. 


Upon crossing the bridge, there was a small community to explore. The streets were very small; a muddy dirt road. 50 meters from the crossing is Maylin! I needed to see Maylin to find out why this was Lonely Planet’s top pick. I passed a drunk lao and from a distance I could hear children playing out loud. Then I saw a tributary of the Song River. On the shaky wood bridge were kids playing around. There were more kids and ladies bathing and washing clothes on the river. Maylin Guesthouse turns out to be a small but comfortable guesthouse with tall shrubs growing on the front yard. Kids waving their nets around, catching butterflies. Maylin looks like a nice place to stay, but its location leaves little to be desired. It is very far from the hub of activities, probably 15 to 20 minutes walk from the High Street. Moreover, you have to pay when you cross the bridge just to get there. When you’re going tubing, the jumbos will ask for more than what is being asked in town. At night, it wouldn’t be a very safe endeavor to leisurely walk back in the dark muddy roads from the bars and restaurants. I am content with Dok Khoun.

Much later in the day, before the sunset, I ventured into another path and saw a couple more temples. Kids were playing footballs (soccer) while nearby, other monks were bathing with their saffron robes on. From the street, I could see families sitting on bare floor, having their dinner. I noticed the other establishments listed in Lonely Planet. American-run Pan’s Place. Elephant Crossing. Vansana Hotel. Thavonsouk Resort. Riverside Bungalows. It was starting to drizzle so I began walking back to the High Street. I saw a vendor selling lechon kawali (roast pork) at 14,000 kip. Wow. I bought a cup of khao nio (sticky rice) at 6,000 kip. She didn’t have khao jao (plain white rice). I took my “dinner” back to my room. Yummy! After resting for a bit, I went out again to look for an internet shop. They charged 6,000 kip/15 minutes. While I was checking my mails, rain fell hard over Vang Vieng. At night, the bars fill with falangs (foreigners) lazily watching Friends with every other backpackers in town. I sat beside a couple from Athens and an Aussie girl from Canberra. There was a Japanese guy at the next table who hardly spoke. His contribution to the crowd was a constant smile. By 9 PM, I headed back to my hotel. Curfew starts in an hour.

What? Really? Oh my God! She said that? Good heavens!

Dok Khoun 1 Guesthouse and my $5 room.
The High Street


Most tourists visit Vang Vieng for its tubing activities. The 3.5 km trip from near the Organic Mulberry Farm, north of Vang Vieng, has become so popular in the backpacker circuit that bars have been set up on islands and beaches along the route selling Beerlao and food. Prices are fixed at $4 and include your trip to the launch point. You have to be careful though with your tubes. If you fail to return it, a stiff fine of $7 is charged. A scam has somehow developed in this cartel. After having such enormous fun, floating on your salbabidas through the rivers and swinging through ropes on your way down the stream, some locals will offer to return those tubes for you. But, you see, the kindness of strangers aren’t what they always seem. They sometimes cost you. And the next morning, you will probably have someone knocking on your door asking for $7 for unreturned tubes.

In A Nutshell

The area’s main attraction is the dramatic landscape surrounding it. Honeycombed with unexplored tunnels and caverns, the cliffs are a spelunker’s heaven. The Nam Song (Song River) meanwhile plays host to kayakers and travelers floating along on tractor inner tubes – a pastime so thoroughly enjoyable and popular that it has become one of the rites of passage of the Indochina backpacking circuit. People are oblivious of the tacky Greco-Laotian architecture of the guesthouses. Elsewhere, there are the TV clubs andhappy bars. Take note of the word “happy” as these refer to menus that allow tourists to sit on an axe pillow, sucking down a shake laced with marijuana, mushrooms or opium and tripping through endless reruns of Friends”. In fact, Joey Tribiani and company deserve royalties for their services in Vang Vieng. This is Friends Country. It ‘s also important to note that Vang Vieng is not Amsterdam where drugs are legally sold in some areas. Don’t get caught taking or possessing one. This is, after all, a communist country with very traditional values and rules, as well as punishments. 

Nam Song (Song River), a tributary of the Mekong.

The exquisite tasting, locally brewed, French-tech distilled Beerlao.

One of the footbridges, northwest Vang Vieng. One of the "happy" bars (above).

Champa Lao Guesthouse

Hopetal de Vang Vieng. Yeah, it says "hopetal".

Song Bridge, southwest Vang Vieng. Had to pay 4,000 kip to cross to the other side.

Maylin Guesthouse

Catching a butterfly.

As the sun sets over the Nam Song...

Wat Kang and my new found friends, its novice monks (below). The wat is number 7 on the map.

Wat That (aka Wat Si Vieng Song)

American-owned Pan's Place, a highly recommended budget accommodation along the Main Highway.

A hairy encounter.

Roast pork (liempo) at 14,000 kip per order. Sarap!

Vang Vieng Fast Facts:
Tubing Capital of Laos.

Backpacker central.

Population: 30,000

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang – 231 km, 6-7 hours of travelVang Vieng to Vientiane - 153 km, 3 ½ hrs – 4 hrs of travelATM machines: There is a Bcel machine right across Dok Khoun 1 Guesthouse.Money changers: Your guesthouse will gladly change your dollar for you, although rates in Vientiane are a little better.

Temples to Visit: (There are only 4 as far as I know.)
- Wat That (Wat Si Vieng Song), Wat Kang, Wat Si Suman and Wat Si Mixayaham

Wat Si Suman, southwest Vang Vieng, near a school and the Song River. Couldn't get a better photo coz a dog was barking at me.

Random Expenditures

· Dok Khoun 1 guesthouse – $5.60 or 45,000 kip or PhP252
· Jumbo/tuktuk from the bus station to the High Street – $1.25 or 10,000 lip or PhP56.25
· Jumbo/tuktuk from the bus station to the stop near Song Bridge – $2.50 or 20,000 kip or PhP112.50
· Song Bridge crossing (return) - $0.50 or 4,000 kip or PhP22.50
· Tubing adventure (transportation and tubes included) - $4 or 32,000 kip or PhP180
· Penalty for failure to return the tubes - $7 or 56,000 kip
· Roast pork (
liempo)– $1.75 or 14,000 kip or PhP78.75
· Khao nio (sticky rice) – $0.25 or 2,000 kip or PhP11.25
· Internet use for 1 hour – $3 or 24,000 kip or PhP135

Wat Si Mixayaham (above and below), a temple located at East Vang Vieng, along the Main Highway.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

From Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng

Karst Mountains en route to Vang Vieng

Thongdat, the jumbo driver, was outside Sackarinth Guesthouse to pick me up. He was actually looking forward to visiting the waterfall with me. That was $25 for him. But I felt I had to move on. I told him I was leaving.

Last night, I saw a travel shop along
Sisavangvong. Instead of going all the way to the South Bus Station (and pay 30,000 to 50,000 kip for a return ride), I decided to book my bus ticket right there. One VIP bus seat to Vang Vieng – 150,000 kip. If I were to buy it direct from the bus station, I had to take a special trip going to the bus station. True enough, the price at the station was only 135,000 kip; 15,000 went to the travel company who sold and reserved me my ticket. Still, it saved me 30,000 kip for the one-way jumbo (tuktuk) fare.

Ban Naluang Station (South Bus Station) was a 15 minute ride southeast from Sisavangvong. The tenements and rows of houses looked different as Thongdat’s tuktuk roared through. We reached the station 15 minutes past 8. There wasn’t a flurry of activities. I got my backpack and handed 30,000 kip to my driver. He must have been disappointed not getting the waterfall tour. I gave an extra 15,000 kip as tip. That’s not a lot. Just barely $2 – or PhP90, but Thongdat replied with a huge heartfelt smile. That’s what I love about the Lao people. They are a very grateful and kind-hearted people. I got my receipt and handed it to the counter. I was handed my official ticket. So I headed to the benches and waited until boarding. VIP seats have reserved seats.

I was not aware of the existence of
Vang Vieng until a few days before I left Manila. My Thai friend Imm emailed me that she was Vang Vieng-bound, but our itinerary wouldn’t meet. Heck! I won’t miss a place that all the other backpackers are talking about. I’m headed to another unplanned destination. Vang Vieng. The lure of this small town is the “tubing” activities on an exceedingly laidback river town, where people just laze around little restaurants that play episode after episode of Friends all day, way until the sun sets.

At 9 AM, my bus pulled off the station. I had a window seat. Beside me was a big british guy who has visited Asia several times in the past. In fact, he
taught English for some Thai kids in a very remote Thailand village: “It was so flat, no hills at all. I was the first white guy they’ve ever laid eyes on. They would come to me and take my arms, touching them like I was a museum piece.” He had regrets for that experience, not for selfish reasons. He thought the timing was off. He donated $500 to work for free and he felt it was time wasted. He should have seen more of Asia instead of being stuck for 3 months. This time, he was traveling with friends, and was extolling the virtues of Laos. “It’s the best ever!” he exclaimed.

At 2 PM, the bus pulled over a carinderia in the middle of the fields. Lunch was paid for. But the queue was long and I didn’t feel like braving a cramped restaurant, foraging for a noodle soup. I went to the next store and got my meal (15,000 kip), which was horrible. This was a rice meal topped with pork bits, which I realized were all bones. This seems to be a common viand in Lao. Puro buto ng pork. While waiting for the ride to resume, a native woman was sitting by the road. I stood beside her. I pointed to the body of water cutting through a field just across the highway. I asked, “Nam Song (Song River)?” She looked up to me and nodded. I knew we were in the vicinity of Vang Vieng. The rest of the ride, I tried to shut my eyes.

The next half of the trip was a preview of the grandeur of the beauty of the countryside. Amazingly, we passed through hills and little villages. My God! It was unbelievable seeing them from my moving bus. Thatched shanties. Naked kids. A couple of old folks making jars. Ethnic apparel. Old women were walking around topless, stopping from their chores as our bus sneaked through the wavy roads of the hill. This was perfectly playing its local color! And I wasn’t able to get my camera! Darn! After that spectacular treat, I took some photos of the karst mountains, and then slept as our bus began our descent from the hills. At about 4 PM, we reached a bus station – small, but modern-looking, glazed tiles newly mounted, and freshly painted walls. I retrieved my backpack then headed to the station counter. I knew I had to reserve my outbound ticket NOW to avoid the same predicament I had in Luang Prabang. I KNEW EXACTLY where I wanted to go after this. The counterman even volunteered to pick me up for my next bus ride. Problem is, I don’t have a hotel yet.

I looked around me.
It is silly but I am always overwhelmed by simple arrivals to new places. I guess I am just thankful for the chance to travel and be somewhere else.

I’m in Vang Vieng!

My VIP bus.

Ban Naluang - South Bus Station, Luang Prabang. From the counters, tickets can be purchased.

Current Bus Information

VIP Bus:

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng - 135,000 kip (bus station); Departure – 8 AMLuang Prabang to Vientiane – 135,000 kip (bus station); Departure – 9 AMLuang Prabang to Phonsavanh: Aircon bus – 115,000 kip, Local bus – 105,000 kip, No VIP bus
Distance from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng: 231 km.
Time travel: 6 hours (in reality, its 7 hours)

Late lunch at our stopover.

I needed bone crackers for my lunch. LOL

Withdrawing Money in Luang Prabang:
Luang has a few ATMs. The machine I saw was located along Sisavangvong near the tourist information and postal center. I was planning on withdrawing cash from my Mastercard to augment my cash for an unscheduled itinerary (Vang Vieng). I've tried the day before but copped out coz I wasn't sure if I was pushing the right buttons. This was Bcel Bank, one of the only two banks with commissioned atm machines. Once you push the "withdraw" button, it would give you the following options: current, savings, cheques, default. I was looking for "cash advance" but couldn't find it. Fearing card capture or mischarges, I decided against any withdrawal. Maybe I could try again in the capital, Vientiane. I thought it would be safer.
Random Expenditures:

· VIP bus seat from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (via travel office) – $18.75 or 150,000 kip or PhP844
· VIP bus seat from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (direct purchase at the South Bus Station) – $16.87 or 135,000 kip or PhP760
· Jumbo (tuktuk) ride to the South Bus Station (
Ban Naluang Station)- 30,000 kip
· Driver tip – $1.80 or 15,000 kip or PhP90
· Lunch at the bus stop - $1.80 or 15,000 kip or Ph90

South Laos Journeys here:
- Chasing Water Falls and Ethnic Tribes at the Bolaven Plateau -

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Luang Prabang's Parade of the Monks

Novice monks going back to their temples to share the bounty of their morning collection.

I was in Chiangmai when I first witnessed a surreal sight of monks doing their early morning rounds in collecting alms from the locals. I would sit on some bench and just wait for solitary monks pass by a still-drowsy neighborhood. And I was mystified!


Fast forward to the present. Location: Luang Prabang! It has become a daily ritual – an anticipated attraction in this somnolent mountain city. Not just one monk - but temples full of monks parading in the morning fog. My alarm was set at 5 AM. There was a dog barking hard at me - and ready to tear me to pieces as I stepped down from my room. Once I got past the mongrel, I stood right in front of my street – Sisavangvong. It was chilly and I could savor the fresh scent of the morning air. I walked to the next block. There were a bunch of drowsy Caucasians, a Korean girl – and myself - waiting from different vantage points. Elsewhere, the shops and restaurants are still fast asleep. By 5:30 AM, a group of Lao locals began setting up mats and baskets of food on the sidewalk. The buzz of excitement in the air was palpable while people waited. I couldn’t sit still. I lurched from my sidewalk and tried the other spots from the opposite side of the street. I decided I will be moving around. 


At 5:40 AM, they came! In droves! Temple after temple of novice monks!

In a steady flow, barefoot monks started to parade, offering their empty brass bowls to the queue of locals. Their saffron robes gleamed in the dull morning hue. I went crazy clicking my camera as the frenzy of alms-giving kept pouring for 30 minutes. It was a dazzling reverie. Luang Prabang succeeded in evincing a dream-like state for its visitors.


The alms-giving ceremony, which is locally called the Tak Bat, has been one of the picturesque attractions of Luang Prabang but as wikitravel recounts, “It is not without its detractors. Some unscrupulous local merchants have used the eagerness of the tourists to participate in a local tradition as a means of making easy money, sometimes selling unsuitable, stale and unsafe food. This has resulted in monks falling ill after having consumed the offerings.” These monks take these offerings back to their temples and share this bounty among them. In fact, not a while back, monks from the different temples have refused to partake in such pageantry to protest against the giving of stale food. BUT – the local government threatened to replace these monks with lay people clothed in saffron robes. This underlines the significance of such ceremony in Luang Prabang! So if you are lucky enough to witness this ceremony, PLEASE… PLEASE - avoid giving food of questionable quality! Let’s not get the monks sick! 

After the pious revelry of a hundred monks’ parade, I went back to my room. It was time to see more of the rest of Laos. It was time to go!

A novice monk offering his bowl for food. My heart just goes to these children. There were hundreds on that queue and I’ve never seen one offer a smile. Let’s not make them sick by giving them stale food, ok?

Here is a more in-depth feature of this ceremony which they locally call the Tak Bat. I hope everyone who gets to witness this will respect these ceremonies.

Low Down on the Tak Bat

The monks’ almsround is a living Buddhist tradition for the people of Luang Prabang which, because of its beauty, has become a major tourist attraction. However, when tourists are unaware of its customs, their inappropriate behaviour can be disruptive. We would like to draw your attention to this religious practice, which has great meaning for the population of Luang Prabang.The meaning of the Tak Bat is a profound expression of generosity, a cardinal virtue for the Lao people, and is a significant source of religious merit for the Buddhist community. It is probably the closest religious interaction between lay people and monks. Whenever it is performed, it is done with a profound sense of beauty and affection, with piety, care, thoughtfulness, and with deep commitment.

Most of the Buddhist believers of Luang Prabang practice this ritual every morning. At sunrise, they prepare the offerings by cooking the rice and kneeling on a mat, in silence, waiting for the monks to approach, their heads and feet bare in humility. They quickly and silently place a small amount of rice in the monks’ alms bowl without making eye contact. Sometimes cakes and fruits are offered. They practice this generous act with joy knowing that it will benefit them, their living or departed relatives, and all beings.For their part, the monks meditate on impermanence and on the meaning of the offerings they receive, which symbolise their intentional poverty, humility, and dependency on the lay community for their material needs. When they return to the monastery, they share the rice, accompanied by other dishes prepared by the community. They eat this first meal of the day in silence.


Although the monks’ Tak Bat has become a tourist attraction, it is primarily a religious act for local lay people. It must be performed in serenity, silence, and concentration. Please show this ritual as much respect as you would your own religious ceremonies. Observe the ritual in silence, and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you. You can do so in a respectful manner. Please purchase the rice at the local market earlier the same morning. The cakes or rice from street vendors along the monks’ route are not free and their activities can be disruptive. If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave in a respectful manner. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers’ offerings. Do not photograph the monks too closely; please understand that camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and lay people. Dress appropriately: shoulders, chest, and legs should be mostly covered. Do not make any physical contact with monks. Large buses are explicitly forbidden within the perimeter in the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus - you will stand above the monks, which in Laos is disrespectful.