Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Valentine Getaway in Northern Laos

"I think that travel comes from some deep urge to see the world, like the urge that brings up a worm in an Irish bog to see the moon when it is full."

Lord Dunsany

Cheryl and I got married more than a year ago, and we are finally going on a holiday together - just the two of us - for the first very time. It all started when Cheryl was checking out flights back to Penang for the Lunar New Year and we started talking about vacationing somewhere in South East Asia. I wanted someplace that is not on the usual tired list of regional destinations, someplace that both of us have never visited. Almost immediately, we decided that we will go to Laos in February.

I knew nothing about Laos. I only remember constantly misattributing its capital, Vientiane, to Vietnam back in high school because they are spelled similarly. After booking our flights, I popped out to a bookstore and got myself a copy of Lonely Planet's guide to Laos and began studying in earnest. We will only be there for a little less than a fortnight because we have decided to leave Baby Darwin behind with Cheryl's folks. After all, why take him when he's not even making memories yet? Anyway, we can't leave him behind for too long or he'll practically be a different baby when we see him again - all those clich├ęs about how babies grow so so very fast are all horrifyingly true and then some.

Wat Pha That Luang in Vientiane
Wat Pha That Luang in Vientiane.

In my last backpacking trip through the Indian Western Himalayas where I had a month to bum around in just a few selected locations, I could afford to travel with just a skeleton sketch of an itinerary. But this time, we only have eleven days and that short span of time calls for serious planning and scheduling if we are to see and do enough to make the trip worthwhile.

After a few days of agonising over what to include or leave out, I came up with a simple 3-stop route starting from the former French colony's capital, Vientiane, and then heading northward to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang before snaking back down to Vientiane,

Route of Northern Loas Trip
Fun fact: Laos is completely landlocked. It is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.

I really wanted to include Phonsavan to visit the Plain of Jars but the detour proved to be too time-consuming due to Laos' lao-sy roads (heh). I am afraid that after spending so much time on the road, we will find ourselves in greater need of a vacation than before we had it. Cutting the Plain of Jars out also gave us more time to spend in the other places and to chill-lao. Some people could travel through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the time we are spending in just Northern Laos, but that sort of hit-and-run travelling style is really not my thing.

My old camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5/TZ15, had been little more than a dust-gathering paperweight for the past couple of years after it died on me so for this trip, I need a new travel camera. I have already ordered my old camera's grandkid, the TZ40, through an online store. It should be arriving any day now.

Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng's dramatic karst hill landscape.

At this point in time, our Laos itinerary (which is essentially a timetable I have christened The Laos Valentine Trip Masterplan) is pretty much 99% complete and it includes our fight numbers, our accommodations in each stop, the attractions, the timing of buses and even a breakdown of our total and daily budgets in three currencies - Malaysian ringgit, US dollar and Laotian kip. I am currently still optimising it - pruning it, adding to it and shifting things around. When it comes to backpacking, I can get a little obsessive.

And I am absolutely addicted to planning my travels through guidebooks, blogs, travel sites and travellers' fora. I can never understand why anyone would leave their entire travel plan in the hands of tour agencies which will take them to the touristy-est of sights, shepherd them to subpar eateries from which they receive commission, and force them to spend hours in tacky souvenir shacks. Why would people pay good money to be treated like that?

Tat Kuang Si near Luang Prabang
Tat Kuang Si near Luang Prabang.

After being off the trail for more than two years (thanks to my grueling, soul-sapping medical internship), I really can't wait till D-day - D for departure - to get back on the road again. I am definitely going to be doing this at least yearly from now on. For my sanity's sake.

Make Lao not war,
k0k s3n w4i


Darshan said...

Yes, I have the pleasure/honor/privilege/distinction of being the first to comment (so far?) on your blog for 2014! Looking forward to your travel fotos and incisive commentaries a la Pico Iyer. And your two meows-meows, are you putting them up in an animal hostel till you are back? I hope they don't have a Starbucks at your northernmost stop to spoil your idyllic mood... But hey there's a Hard Rock Cafe at Melaka! May this year be filled continually with your insights on the human condition blah blah. Enjoy your Laos se... oophs I mean escapade ;).

k0k s3n w4i said...

Darshan: Thanks for commenting and for your well wishes. We are going to leave them with a petshop owner who cat-sat for us in the previous instances we were away.