After a busy 10 weeks of working full time including a demanding trip to Indonesia with 81 freshman, I was more than ready for the arrival of fall break. You will be glad (or extremely jealous) to know that my friend Jason assures me that we have already made it through our longest stretch of continuous teaching time this school year. Thank goodness! Vacations are my favorite part of living abroad.
After debating many options, my traveling companion, Ricki, and I settled on Luang Prabang, Laos over a month ago. We booked our flights and reserved hotels for the first 2 and last 3 nights, and we figured that we would make plans and figure out the middle eventually. Since life is busy, the eventually happened as the days unfolded.
To say the least, we were extremely unprepared for this trip. We didn’t pack well, read much, learn important customs or information, etc. It was probably the least responsible tourism that I have ever participated in, but in some ways, our utter ignorance made every moment a magnificent surprise. However, I did vow to myself that I would never be quite so unaware again.
Due to our lack of background knowledge, we had a steep learning curve upon arrival. After a long layover in Siem Reap, Cambodia (the town where I will run a half marathon in about a month), we arrived at the tiny airport in Luang Prabang. Without understanding the exchange rate, location of our hotels, or tipping practices, we booked seats in a shared airport taxi (the only kind), and were off on about a half an hour drive into “downtown” Luang Prabang. Though some of the roads were narrow and we passed some construction and dodged motorbikes and other trucks, there was a sense of peace. This peace was, of course, periodically punctured by potholes and beeping, but I was in awe of the stars and topography. We dropped off the first couple in our taxi at some sort of temple homestay on the skirts of town, and then Ricki, Jason and I gasped in delight when we hit the main street with the river on the right and cutely lit cafes and storefronts on the left. Everything was adorable in the early evening. And, pretty empty. Gone were the noises and crowds of Saigon.
We made complicated plans that Jason would meet us back at our hotel after he got dropped off at his and found his way back so that we could all eat at the night market after we dropped off our bags. This seemed like a solid plan since Jason watched us get dropped off and would presumably be able to figure out the route taken from us to his hotel. Of course, this didn’t account for the other passengers in the van who might make the route less than direct – or for the fact that the main road between us was filled with night market vendors. Life without 3G makes it so hard to communicate. How did people ever find each other in the past?
When Ricki and I attempted to check into the adorable Chiang Inn that she had booked because it was quaint, on sale, and on the route of the monks’ morning procession, we were told that they were in fact moving us to their sister hotel. This sometimes happens when you book online, and usually the results aren’t nearly as nice as what you booked. So, the whole walk to the “sister” hotel, Ricki and I were plotting how we would beg to be returned to the Chiang Inn. However, when we arrived at Burasari Heritage hotel, which was right on that magical waterfront street we had driven down, you might not have been able to rip us away. Additionally, our room came with a patio with a chaise that overlooked the river. It was adorable; the staff was sweet; we were happily settled. However, apparently the internet was mostly down due to some problem that couldn’t be fixed until Monday morning, so communicating our new location and plans to Jason was problematic. Eventually though, we all reconvened at Chiang Inn, and made our way to the night market, which it turns out was close to Jason’s hotel and between our two “homes.”
As we stepped foot into the tents filling the street, I braced myself for the onslaught of people shouting at me to buy their goods and the touching and pushing that accompany most marketplaces I have visited in Southeast Asia. But, within seconds, Ricki, Jason, and I were exchanging puzzled glances. Nobody was shouting; nobody was pushing us. We were just walking through rows of beautiful fabrics and lanterns and wooden bowls and souvenirs. The food street was on the other side, and we had been warned by our hotel that the market started closing down around 9-9:30 (even though it was a Saturday night). So we were beelining for the food, but it wasn’t even a challenge, except that the walkways between stalls were narrow. It was a surreal experience to be in a semi-familiar context with a completely different experience. If you want a quick glimpse at what we are marveling at, check out this brief video.
Finally, we made it through the market, and the first food that we discovered was magical! Apparently, mini coconut pancakes are the world’s best kept secret. How is this not all the rage in street food world wide?!?! We don’t quite know what was in the batter, but the end result was a mushy, coconutty delicacy with a slightly crispy coat. We had seconds…almost every night. I did look for the special pan to make my own, but didn’t find one – more investigation necessary next trip.
Jason and I took advantage of a noodle and vegetable buffet after finding a few snacks on the way down the alley. We were pretty much in food heaven.I had been told by a work friend that she, her husband and her son all got food poisoning in Laos, but that the food was so good, the people so lovely, and the place so beautiful that it was their favorite vacation anyway. I should have taken this as an advisement to eat carefully, but surely this food that had been sitting out for hours wasn’t the cause of the food poisoning that overtook me days later. Right?
After eating, we wandered through the market a while longer and stopped at a cute cafe for a drink and wifi so that I could check in on the Christyn & Jason wedding progress. Then we were off to bed with plans to reconvene the next morning. There was randomly a half marathon happening the next morning. Of course, everything is random to people who don’t research and plan, but I knew I would be up early enough to cheer on the runners.
So, now you know. I made it to Laos. Maybe someday soon, I can finish telling the story of this amazing journey. It is a place to love.