Destinations, Laos

Slow Boat, Slow Bus, Slow to Bid Farewell

December 14, 2012

A saunter through our travels in and around Luang Prabang, Laos…

Geared up for Day Two on the Mekong River slow boat ride to Luang Prabang, Laos

Slipping slowly down the river on a two-day ride to Luang Prabang eased us into pace of life in Laos: reading books, exploring back alleys, finding bites to eat, and sinking into conversation with newfound friends.

With thanks to the strangers who left their handy guidebook on the guesthouse exchange shelf in Chiang Mai, we discovered dinner at Tamarind on our first night in town (same name, different spot): a feast sans-camera. If I tell you we ate perfectly charred lemongrass-wrapped pork, tasty bites of peppers, nuts, and herbs in betel leaf packages, creamy cinnamon-banana-coconut smoothies, and bananas with tamarind sauce and coconut milk yogurt, perhaps you might be able to conjure up a few mental images?

By daylight, we rented a motorbike – a favorite pastime of ours in Southeast Asia. After a year of relying so much on others’ transportation schedules, the liberty of hopping on two wheels and chasing desire in any direction came as a welcome change of pace in Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, and later on in Hua Hin, Thailand.

The temples of Luang Prabang were every bit as beautiful as rumored, and little floral bright spots of lotus blossoms and lantana verbenas and bougainvillea vines were crowning jewels.

Back in Chiang Mai, the second night in town Ted and I ventured down to the south gate food market to order what would soon become our staple dinner: Mrs. Pa’s fruit smoothies and a heaping plate of noodles and veggies from the couple with the stall behind her cart. The rainy season thwarted our plans to sit at one particular table, but it blessed us with the invitation to join Olga and Robin at their nearby spot under a sheltering umbrella.

We introduced ourselves and swapped the travel dossiers. Portugal and Germany were their original countries of origin. Now married, they live in Dusseldorf and travel whenever possible to places around the world. In Asia for several weeks, they had a mapped out itinerary and when we said our farewells that night, we expected they’d be long gone by the time we made it to Luang Prabang.

This year, far from home and friends, spotting a familiar face on the road is like hitting the jackpot, so imagine Ted’s grin when he came back to our guesthouse the first night we arrived in Luang Prabang announcing that he’d met up with Robin and Olga on the streets and we had a date for the next afternoon at a spot called Utopia. I’m still kicking myself that we didin’t manage to take a single group photo together!

We loved Utopia so much that we went back on our own for breakfast the next morning, walking through the garden grounds and bombshell casings to reach the lounge deck overlooking the Nam Khan River…

Gazing at the sun while it sets over the Mekong attracts quite the crowd at Mount Phou Si in the center of the city. The behavior of our fellow travelers seemed inconsistent with the beauty of the view, though. As we hiked to the top of the hill, past altars and shrines and sacred spots, I observed younger Laotian school children visiting as a group. Whereas in other scenes you might expect older tourists to raise their eyebrows at rowdy young ones blowing bubble gum, shouting loudly, and elbowing for room to take photos with phones, the flip-flop here was telling. The young teenagers from Laos seemed twice as respectful and reflective as more than a few of the foreigners.

Nevertheless, the view itself was lovely and inspired moments of reflection…

Not far from the city flows Kuang Si Falls.

One of us went for the rope swing.

Guess who?


In many ways, memories from Luang Prabang feel like sappy dream.

After spending two days with the same boat-full of folk coming down the Mekong then disembarking together, the town felt smaller than ever, with recognizable faces on every street corner. Smiling little children calling “Sabadee!” seemed cuter than children anywhere else in the world. Delightful French baguettes and croissants were popping up at holes in the wall, and local Laotian Mak Toum tea centered me into the moment with supreme gratefulness and satisfaction.

By the end of our last full day, what began as a jewelry search with a pocket full of Lao Kip turned into a cookbook buying evening, maybe fueled by the wishful hope to capture the spirit of this place again when I’m a thousand travel travel days away.

For our final meal in town, we joined Brett, Susan, and Alex, our newfound friends from New Zealand, and their friends, Vanh and John, a local couple from Laos and Australia working with the United Nations to help with local tourism initiatives in Luang Prabang.

Vahn led us through a Lao BBQ dinner: a shared meal of sizzling meats, poached fish, boiled eggs, tasty greens, and savory broths cooked in the center of the table over blazing orange coals and tall glasses of ice cold lime juice sweetened with sugarcane. I’m pretty keen to set up one of these contraptions back at home…

We departed Luang Prabang dragging our feet.

It may have been due to intense aversion to long-distance bus rides, but I think the hesitation to leave truly stemmed from the rest and the pace of life we enjoyed during our time in the city. I’ve heard from others who felt itch feet upon arrival, but Ted and I found a healthy balance for our styles of travel. Retreat and time. Scenes and people worth seeking out. Satisfying meals and cheap street eats. And a culture far deeper than we had adequate time to engage.

And so we returned to the road, braving another series of windy mountain highland twists and turns in a jewel toned bus full of carsick locals, and we rested for a day at the halfway point in Vientiane before sharing an overnight second-story-bunk in another dreadful bus to Pakse.

From these dusty window seats, we see the world…

Just a few favorites to recommend…

Tamarind: A Taste of Laos
Ban Vat Sene, Luang Prabang
Delicious dinner menu and servers offering diners an education on Lao food and culture

Ock Pop Tok
Living Crafts Center
Their name means ‘East meets West’ and the store promotes fair trade, empowering local women to cultivate traditional skills of the Lao culture, “keeping it alive for the next generation,”  through the sales of their hand-woven textiles and goods.

Ban Aphay Kingkitsarath Rd, Luang Prabang
We can’t vouch for the evening scene, but we definitely recommend afternoon drinks and snacks, or better yet, morning yoga and breakfast! (Thanks Robin & Olga.)

Which spot in the world have you been slow to bid farewell?

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  • Reply Alexandra December 14, 2012 at 7:41 am

    Luang Prabang totally sucked me in. I ended up spending 9 days there, many lazy afternoons spent at Utopia! Love that place!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 18, 2012 at 10:14 am

      It has that effect, doesn’t it? Perhaps it was because we arrived by slow boat, but it just felt so remote and so foreign. And Utopia was the perfect haven of comfort and calm in the midst of life on the road… Glad to hear you loved it, too!

  • Reply Andi of My Beautiful Adventures December 14, 2012 at 8:55 am

    God your pictures just keep getting better and better…just gorgeous!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 18, 2012 at 10:16 am

      You’re too kind, Andi! I’m just so glad to be able to share them : )

  • Reply Heather December 14, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    That pic on the bus gave me the instant caption: “We are officially in bus-riding hell.” Otherwise, it sounds like a dream :)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 18, 2012 at 10:43 am

      Haha. You know us well, my friend ; ) That one is right up there on the “worst nights sleep of 2012” list.

  • Reply Maria December 15, 2012 at 1:37 am

    Now THAT’S a recap and no wonder you were reluctant to leave.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 18, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Just trying to savor the memories, now! : )

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    […] That time for writing, taking photos, exploring, sleeping, taking slow routes instead of fast ones… […]

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