Day #148 Laos: Yet another bump in the road
We flew into Laos through the capital city Vientiane. The first thing we noticed was how quiet the city actually was. It was still high season and with the Chinese New Year fast approaching we were expecting it to be really busy. The almost empty city and the well-maintained roads in and around the city were not what I had pictured for this South Asian country. Nevertheless, I was happy that we would get to visit Vientiane in peace.
One of the nicest things we did in Vientiane was visiting the famous Buddha Park in the outskirts of the city. We rented a scooter and made our way there. The green park was well preserved and had over 200 religious statues. Despite what the name suggests, the Buddha Park has both Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. Walking around the park feels like going on an expedition through all the major symbolic gods, animals and demons of both beliefs. Some of the sculptures were beautiful and inviting while others were really odd and morbid. One in particular, was a giant pumpkin structure standing about three stories high. The entrance was crafted to look like a demon’s mouth with a stone ladder inside leading to a bird's eye view of the entire Xieng Kuan Park. Each storey in the inside represents the three levels: Hell, Earth and Heaven and has different sculptures representing that level. Just like this sculpture, I loved how all the others made you reflect on a particular aspect of life.
In Vientiane, I also loved the Pha That Luang, a golden-covered Buddhist stupa in the centre of the city. We visited it first thing in the morning and I loved the energy of the place. The peace and harmony it emanated. Of course, a city is not good for us without good food but Vientiane had plenty of options and we were really happy with the food. Laotian food felt simpler than in Myanmar and is very diverse giving you a wide range of tasty options. My favorite was the Larp, a type of Lao meat salad!
On our way to Luang Prabang we stopped in the village of Vang Vieng for 2 nights. The most notable feature of this area and the reason we wanted to stop there, is that it is surrounded by a magnificent karst hill landscape that gives the town a really pre-historic feeling. I loved the scenery there and we were lucky enough to be a 5 minutes walk from the river were we could swim and do “tubing” with our own bodies! It was really fun.
Our visit to Vang Vieng was energizing but short. We needed to get to Luang Prabang so we could go to the Vietnam embassy and get our visas in time for the wedding of the cousin of my good friend Ha. We were meant to meet in Vietnam in a week time. We actually arrived to Luang Prabang with a small margin in case the embassy would take longer to issue the visas (usually 3 days). Everything had been planned so we could then cross the border by bus, spend a few days in Sa Pa in the north of Vietnam, before joining Ha and his family in Hanoi. What could go wrong you ask? Well, everything!
Despite the fact that we had thought of everything in detail, prepared all the documentation and ensured we would go to the embassy first thing in Luang Prabang to avoid the Chinese New Year holidays later that week, what we were not expecting, was that the embassy would be closed the WHOLE week for Chinese New Year. And if you wanted to pay for an urgent visa during this time you would need to pay at least 250$! Bottom line: it was Monday morning and the embassy would only reopen a week later, leaving us stuck in Luang Prabang for longer than expected and shaking off all our original plans. Making it impossible for us to visit Sa Pa, making it to the wedding (which we had planned 3 months before) or follow our budget for that matter! Also, I had an important appointment to go to so I could meet my Canada Visa application deadline. And because it was Chinese New Year week, the hotels were overbooked, prices were inflated and there were not even scooters available! Whenever these things happen when traveling it can be very frustrating and demotivating. Plus, they always seem to happen at the worst possible time. Not only do you end up spending more than you had originally planned to but you also end up having to plan everything all over again! By this point, Antonio was really disappointed with all the unpredictable bumps we hit throughout our trip and felt completely desperate. I was too but seeing him like this left me feeling worse and left me no choice than to find a solution as soon as possible. After calling most online visa agencies, going in person to the ones in Luang Prabang, searching all types of flights to Vietnam from Laos, I realized the best option for us would be to go to the embassy first thing Monday morning and ask for an extra urgent visa for an added cost. This meant we could pick up the visa on that same day at 5pm and run to get the bus at 6pm to Hanoi. It would be a 26 hours non-stop bus journey! The longest we had ever done since we started our trip. But unfortunately, it was the best solution for us if we wanted to get in time to Hanoi!
Once things felt on track again we were able to enjoy our days in Luang Prabang. It turned out to be a great week for us in which we visited some of the nature gems around Luang Prabang but also experienced the cultural traditions of Luang Prabang such as the Alms Giving Ceremony. This ceremony consists in offering food to the monks at sunrise that come out from all the temples around the city and gather in the main street. We thought this spiritual act was a beautiful ceremony to do on the 7th of February in memory of my mother since it would be 2 years since she passed away. It was a special ceremony in which we could connect directly with the monks. That day, we also decided to do a trip to the Pak Ou caves near Luang Prabang that hide over 4000 Buddha icons. Another beautiful surprise while in Luang Prabang, was the Kuang Si Falls. Although it was really busy, the beauty of those falls is undeniable. It is hard to imagine that such a water and falls exist until you actually see it and the fact that we went later in the afternoon allowed us to avoid a bit the crowds. Finally, we felt one of the unique attractions in Laos was the night market. It had all type of handicrafts and food but my favorite encounter was with a foundation that teaches local kids English: the Big Brother Mouse. Every night the kids gather at the market to try to start conversations with tourists and practice their English but also to invite them to the foundation for free on the next morning so they can practice. I thought it was a great idea and the kids were really sweet.
Despite the rough start at Luang Prabang we ended up having a great week and the sunsets by the river while having a beer and eating hot pots will forever stay in our memory!
Lets see what Vietnam has reserved for us :)