I’m not an organized person, and I don’t really expect a squatter’s residence to be organized…but it’s a little strange here.
It stormed in the middle of the night, cleansing the air so that today feels fresh as opposed to the usual 32 degree, muggy heat. It’s actually breathable.
We dive right in to our day of tourist activities by driving to the Drogarati cave.
I found arranging transport from Zakynthos to Kefalonia SO enraaaaging that I’ve decided to lay out the options as clearly as possible for you. Hopefully this saves you some time and keeps you semi-zen. We’re on the Greek islands! We should be chilllllin’ at all times!
It never clicks in that I’m really leaving until I’m already gone. I say goodbye to my friends, pack up my bags, and hop on the airport bus, leaving Barcelona behind me. It’s the end of an era!
The day is finally here! I feel like I’ve been waiting for this day forever. Since returning home from my last trip in September, I’ve been planning to get away again. At first I thought I’d leave for Asia in December, which somehow became February, which then turned to March. Those 7 months were long, (in my small town without a car) but now in hindsight feel so fleeting. It’s all been worth it. I’m on my way.
Dad and I head to the airport with Mom and my cousin Krista to see us off. I hate saying goodbyes and I know poor Mama worries, but it’s only a short trip compared to my last. I’m so overwhelmed by the excitement of adventure-to-come that I can’t feel sadness. I just can’t wait for 2:05.
The flight to Tokyo is 14 hours long. For this, I am not pumped. When Dad and I get our boarding passes, we see that our seats aren’t even together…14 hours is a long time to spend wedged between two strangers.
We ask multiple people if there’s some way they can rearrange the seating, but we are consistently told no. We accept our fate.
Pearson International is mediocre at best, although they have been making some improvements. Dad and I wait in a lounge right next to our gate, which has an iPad and charging station next to every individual seat. You can even order food and drinks from a nearby restaurant, with just the click of a button on the iPad screen. Pretty cool.
When we board the plane, we are fortunate to find one young woman sitting alone in the seat next to Dad’s. I ask her if she would mind switching seats with me, and she gets up without hesitation. What a little angel. I don’t understand why every Air Canada employee had such trouble shifting things around on a flight that holds like 800 people, but lucky for us I’m an expert hostess. Apparently seating people is my calling.
I read my book, Escape From Camp 14 (which you MUST read if you ever get the chance/have a soul) and watch in flight movies (all the hype about Frozen is legit) for most of the flight, and try to get some sleep.
They serve Mr. Noodles…how exotic!
It’s 6:30am in Tokyo and 5:30pm on Toronto time. Jet lag is going to be a buzz kill.
After today, everyone in our group is splitting up and we’re all moving on to different places in the world. However, we all still need to get south to Vientiane, (capital city of Laos) to connect to our next destinations, so we decide to try and stick together a little longer. There are busses and vans available for very cheap that can get you there in 3 hours, which is a piece of cake. Originally that was our plan, to just take a simple bus in the morning to arrive there by early afternoon, but then I hear one of the boys talking about kayaking to the city, which I think sounds awesome. I put it out of my mind because I know that kayaking the distance of a 3 hour car ride could be pretty intense and I would maybe die. I don’t know how or when but somehow everyone else heard about the kayaking too, and also felt intrigued so when the girls suggest to me that we do the kayak I decide to go for it. The itinerary says that we would leave at 9am and arrive to the city at 6pm that night, with a stop for lunch in between, so in my mind I’m gearing up for a 7 or 8 hour kayak, but I think I can do it. We book the trip, for about three times as much money than a bus would have been (still only $20) and all plan to leave together in the morning.
We all get up and pack our things, which are spread into a huge mess all over the room, (ahhhhh backpacking) and go downstairs for a quick breakfast. There are 17 people from our little group who decided to kayak to Vientiane, and then 3 solo travelers who are staying in the same guesthouse as we are. We toss our full backpacks into the back of two larger-sized tuk tuks, and get in with them. It’s a tight fit to have 10 people and 10 backpacks all in one tuk tuk but I don’t think it matters because the drive can’t be that long. Wrong. The drive is an hour before we reach the water where we get in the kayaks. They are two person kayaks and most of the girls have been so smart and asked the strongest boys to be their partners so they wouldn’t be stuck at the back. I consider myself a pretty experienced paddler, in a canoe though, and I’ve kayaked before but it really doesn’t feel that different, so I’m not too concerned about getting the strongest partner. I get paired with a guy in our group who is a lot older than I am, but he’s still a man so I assume he can paddle. I ask him if he’s kayaked before and he tells me he has so I offer to let him steer if he’d like but mention that I feel comfortable doing it as well. He prefers to take the back seat and steer the boat, which is cool because it’s less work for me and I’m not fully confident in my kayak steering skills, especially in a two person kayak.
We paddle down the river for about 20 minutes before hitting our first rapid. Our kayak guide tests them out first and encourages us to follow along. It’s not an insane amount of white water, just a little bit so I don’t feel too concerned. We all make it through without a problem. I have brought my trusty water proof camera with me so I can take pictures of the beautiful scenery around me as well as everyone in their kayaks.
The next set of rapids we hit are a little more intense. A faster current with a longer stretch of rocks, as opposed to the last one which took about 2 seconds to cross. Our boat has not been steering as straight as I’d like it to, so I’m slightly more concerned about these rapids and tie my camera around my ankle, just in case. We go down into the rapids, (which we are supposed to hit straight on) at a diagonal angle, which flips our kayak. We go plunging into the river where I am swept under for what seems like forever by the strong current. I finally resurface and manage to grab a hold of our kayak so I can float out to the flat water. My first instinct is to grab for the camera that had been looped around my ankle, which is now missing. I know that even after our lucky find in the river while tubing, I will never ever find my camera at the bottom of a stream of rapids. I am so mad at myself for not tying it to the kayak but it just seemed like a better idea at the time to have it on my body. Ughhhh.
I like to think that 20 years from now, when technology has advanced and the earth is running low on drinking water, or a giant natural disaster displaces the water in this river, that someone will find my waterproof camera and be able to access all my photos and be like wow, she had such a cool life.
We get back into the kayak, and I ask if I can steer this time. I’m much more comfortable in the back of the kayak, but back here I can see what my paddling partner is doing…which isn’t much of anything. He can’t get comfortable, so sits with his feet dangling in the water on either side of the kayak and holding his paddle still across his lap. He paddles every now and then, but it almost makes it worse because I’ve come to find a rhythm in which I can paddle hard enough to keep our boat straight as well as close to the rest of the group. When he paddles it throws me off because the strokes are not even. It’s hard NOT to get annoyed with your paddling partner, especially in the hot sun after losing a camera, so I do try my very best to stay calm. I just refrain from speaking about anything at all unless it’s necessary. We almost tip over a couple more times as he tries to settle in and find a comfortable seating arrangement for himself. I will have everyone note that we did not tip the kayak through the rapids when I was steering. What uppp!?
After what feels like forever, we reach our lunch point. This means we tie our kayaks to some rocks along the shore, and climb up onto a big rock where there is space to build a fire and grill chicken for the group. Our guides prepare the meal for us, while we climb up onto different sized boulders and up onto cliffs and jump into the river. I climb over to one rock and jump off, but I don’t have the guts to cliff dive as high as some of people in the group, who climb up to the top of a rocky wall that must be 50 feet high, and plunge down into the quick moving current of the river. It keeps us entertained until our food is ready, which is two chicken and vegetable skewers atop some fried rice and a baguette (they love baguettes in Laos).
When we’re finished eating we get back to our kayaks to do the second stretch of paddling for the day. I am again, paddling a 37 year old man down a river basically all on my own, but I love being on the water and in the sun, and I’ve always enjoyed paddling so I am surprisingly less angry than I would have expected myself to be. We make it to the shore, when I slip up and say “mine” so I have to do 10 press ups on the rocky beach. My upper body is going to be in so much pain tomorrow and I know it.
We are told to throw our bags onto the roof of a tuk tuk, which will be taking us to Vientiane. I was under the impression that we would have two tuk tuks, like we had on the way to the river, but this time they plan to cram 20 of us into one vehicle and have our bags on top. It is not a comfortable journey, and the sun has tired me out but I can’t sleep with all of the bumps on the road. We drive for an hour and a half through farm country before reaching the city, which I was not expecting. I was under the impression that I would be kayaking for 7 hours today, not kayaking for 2 hours and driving around in a tuk tuk for the rest of it. However, being in the tuk tuk gives my arm a nice break from paddling and press ups.
Our trip ends up being a long day of driving in a tuk tuk, instead of the kayak adventure we had all envisioned. And technically we could have taken a bus and been there 6 hours earlier… But the kayak thing was a nice change from a boring old car.
We arrive in Vientiane which is a nice city, but not as nice as Luang Prabang, which is my favourite place I’ve visited so far, I think. There are lots more lights and restaurants in the city, which makes sense because it is the capital after all. The tuk tuk driver drops us off on a random street instead of at a guest house so we start walking. Again, finding space for 20 people is difficult and when we start being told that most guest houses are full at this time of the year, and it’s already 6pm, everyone gets a little panicky and we all split up without telling each other where we’re going or agreeing on a time to meet back up. Communication is key when you’re in a foreign country without a cell phone. I am still grouped with 5 other people, and we walk around looking for a place to stay but can’t find anything that we like or that can hold as many of us as we’d like. We finally make contact with some other people in the group when we sit down at a cafe and get wifi. The other 20 people with us have found a hostel with enough space for all of them, and one more double room. That isn’t exactly ideal for 6 people so we make adjustments. We end up cramming 3 people into 2 person rooms for a couple reasons, mostly just that there is nothing else around that is affordable and still has space. We’re just here for one night so no one minds sleeping on the floor, though I am lucky and get a double room with just me and one other girl.
We all shower after a long day in the heat. I am convinced my “tan” is strictly dirt caked onto my skin but after my shower I am still quite dark, but only on my front side and mostly on my shoulders. It is not a even tan, but it’s something!
We meet for dinner down the street at a restaurant called the Full Moon Café to start celebrating our last night as a group! I order a rum and coke to drink, and take a shot in the dark and order a pulled pork sandwich for dinner which I figure could be awesome or be absolutely terrible. The waiter takes me order but comes back a few minutes later and says “I’m sorry sir, we don’t have rum and coke”. A) I am not a sir. B) I can see a bottle of Bacardi on the bar right beside me. I let the sir thing go because I obviously know it’s a language barrier thing (I hope) and I think it’s adorable, and I just point at the bottle of rum to get my point across. They come back with a glass filled half way up with rum, and a can of coke. I ask for two glasses so I can mix a proper drink and not die from drinking what looks like 3oz of rum in one glass. The pulled pork sandwich arrives and is probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, because it’s fantastic. It’s a nice little taste of home. I mean, I’ve had better pulled pork in my life, but this sandwich doesn’t disappoint, especially considering I am in Laos. I have to explain what it is to some British people at the table who have never heard of it before, poor Europe.
There are 20 of us at the table so when our bill comes, the total is ONE MILLION kip. It looks so badass so I take a picture. But the total in Canadian dollars is about $138 so it’s not reaaaally that bad ass. In fact, $138 for 20 people is a sick deal! I could pay for everyone if I wanted too…but I certainly don’t.
We go out to a bar to celebrate our last night together and while we’re all chatting we figure out that no one has anything booked to leave Vientiane the next day, and almost all of us will be staying another night… So this isn’t our last night together after all. It continues! We’re all excited to find out that we still have a bit of time together, we really all don’t want to go, but traveling in such a large group is seriously impossible, and most importantly everyone has a different idea of where they want to go and what they want to do next so it could never really work out anyway. It’s nice to spend the time we have together though!
Almsgiving is a religious practiced on the streets of Luang Prabang where monks accept rice, sugarcane, bananas, and any other food that the people in town have to offer them. At 6:00 every morning residents of the town come to the sidewalks and set up carpets to kneel on while they offer handfuls of rice and other food to the monks who pass by. I had never heard of almsgiving before my visit to Laos, and I admittedly don’t know very much (or anything at all, really) about Buddhism. I am eager to learn though, and now that I’m here and have the opportunity to witness one of these ceremonies, I am more than willing to wake up absurdly early for it.
It’s 5:30 when I’m up and putting on a long sleeved shirt and pair of long auburn comfy pants. It’s hard to wake up, but I went to bed early last night, thank Buddha. Ilona can’t wake up, and I hate trying to make people wake up when they’re sleepy, so I let her stay. I feel bad, because I feel like this is going to be a really cool experience.
The other girls come down and get me when they’re ready to go and we go outside to watch the Almsgiving. As soon as we step foot out the front door three Laotian women with baskets of food are crowding us trying to ask us to buy something from them to offer the monks. We had read online that tourists aren’t really supposed to do this for two reasons; one being that it is a religious ceremony and you shouldn’t really take part in it unless you really believe it and understand it, and the second reason being that it promotes selling things to tourists just for the benefit of profit, and the Almsgiving is not about that. We politely tell the women that we do not want to buy their food, and continue walking to the main street which is only a block from our guesthouse. We wait for about half an hour before the monks arrive. It is interesting to watch the towns people come and prepare for this event.
We sit on the sidewalk behind the row of people kneeling on carpets and preparing to give away their food, and quietly watch as the monks begin to slowly walk down the sidewalk. They each walk silently one behind another, holding open the lid of a small metal basket which is draped over each of their shoulders, similar to a messenger bag. The townspeople take handfuls of rice from their baskets and drop it into the monks’ baskets for them. The monks do not smile, they do not bow, they do not do anything but keep walking. Sometimes, they will drop a handful of food (only packaged items or sugarcane, I never saw them drop rice) into the laps of children or poor people, who instead of kneeling and offering food, sit and kneel with their hands pressed together. A mother and her child sit in front of us, and have only a very small basket of rice to offer the monks. I watch many monks drop food from their baskets in front of the child before continuing down the street. The exchange between the townspeople and the monks is so beautiful. It’s lovely to see people supporting and feeding each other. There’s such a shortage of this kindness in the world.
Part of me is sad that I can’t take part in it, but it’s nice to sit back and observe everything.
The only negative thing about this morning, is that I notice that there are wayyyy more tourists than I had anticipated. And like so many other things, especially when it comes to traveling, I walked into this with vision clouded by my own expectations, which are always magical and lined with more silver and gold than reality offers. That’s my fault, but I still can’t help but feel annoyed by the amount of tourists… which is hypocritical, I know. I came to the almsgiving without a camera, just excited to go absorb the experience and hopefully learn something new about monks and Laotian culture. I was shocked by the amount of tourists who all carry big Nikon cameras, snapping photos of monks (which you are not supposed to do in the first place) left right and centre while they go about their daily routines. No one even bothered to turn off the flash, and just continued swarming the monks like a bunch of paparazzi. Many tourists are wearing tank tops (disrespectful in Laotian culture, and this information is literally written on posters all over town and at the border office when entering the country) so that’s ridiculous. I am not in any way religious, but I know that if you are going to attend a religious ceremony you have to abide by their values and traditions, and I think it’s sad that so many people disregard this and do whatever they want here.
One English couple (who were older, maybe about 60) purchased some food from a local woman, sat down on the carpet after removing their shoes, but then placed their shoes on the carpet beside them anyway. They held out handfuls of rice for the monks, (and snapped some photos of their good deeds…ugh) and before all of the monks had walked through the couple had run out of rice. Instead of sitting there patiently and waiting for everyone to pass through, they started putting on their shoes (while still sitting on the mat) and just got up and walked to the other side of the street for a better photo op. It was disheartening to say the least.
The other Canadian girl we’re traveling with makes note that so many tourists complain about young backpackers, but so many of the disrespectful tourists we see this morning are much older.
I am told by one of the guys in our group that Luang Prabang is one of, if not the only, town in the world that still holds this ceremony, but I haven’t heard any other information to support this so far. I do know however, that the entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site, which I think is pretty cool.
The whole experience this morning is really really interesting and I’m happy that I got up to see it, I just wish I wasn’t a tourist and that other tourists didn’t know about it. In a perfect world, right?
After the ceremony we find tourist office where we can book a van that will take us to Vang Vieng later this morning, so we book that, eat some breakfast and start packing up our stuff. Our bus comes to collect us at 9:30, and by bus I mean mini-van with some fold away chairs so it can seat extra people. There are 10 of us in one van, and 11 seats so you’d think it would be roomy, but it isn’t. Luckily it’s only a 6 hour drive to Vang Vieng, and the seats are padded and pretty comfy. The best part about the drive is the fact that the only way to get there is through the mountains. We drive on extremely windy, thin, roads (or sometimes just stretches of gravel that I wouldn’t call a road) all around and up the mountains through little villages situated right on the edges of cliffs and covered in jungle on either side. Little babies and children are running around with little or no clothing on, completely unattended by any adults and playing games they’ve made up with sticks or picking flowers. I can’t help but feel worried (because I am my mother’s daughter) and feel like they are too close to the road, and the cliff, and the jungle… but they’re still alive so it must be fine.
It’s such a gorgeous drive with lots to look at, that I can’t complain about how long it takes at all. We go up so high that my ears are popping, and we are encased in a cloud so it’s quite foggy, but you can still make out the mountains in the distance. Absolutely beautiful. Some of the turns the driver makes are a little questionable, in terms of speed or available space on the road, but we never flip and tumble down the mountain, so it’s cool. The van only cost 105,000 kip ($14). I used to pay $14 to get from my apartment to work in a cab back in the city, and that didn’t even take 6 minutes let alone 6 hours.
We stop for lunch at a restaurant randomly located somewhere near the top of the mountain. It’s also a guest house or “geust” house as it is spelt on the sign out front. Adorable. The view is incredible and the food is decent and cheap. Only 2 more hours in the car from here, thankfully. Car rides always feel longer than they are for some reason.
We arrive in Vang Vieng which is way smaller and more adorable than I thought it would be. It’s located in a valley so we’re surrounded by gorgeous mountains as well as cute little guest houses and restaurants along one main road. We find a hostel that can take the 6 of us girls and the 6 boys and settle in.
We all meet up for dinner at a bar close by, which plays “Friends” on repeat. Awesome.
Afterwards we go out to an Irish bar, encouraged by the Irish fellows in our group, which is packed with tourists. We’re tired so we only stay for a little while, and go back to bed to sleep early that night. Like in Luang Prabang, all the bars shut down by 11:30 at the latest anyway, so it’s easy to have an early night.
A day full of such mixed emotions!
Firstly and fore-mostly, I am excited. I have been waiting to do this for what seems like forever now, and I almost can’t believe it’s really happening. I finish packing up my things, and I’m trying my very very best not to bring anything I don’t need.