Sunday, February 23, 2014

So, I'm Back from Laos...

"There is probably no more obnoxious class of citizen, taken end for end, than the returning vacationist."

Robert Benchley

Mekong Cruise Sunbeams
Morning river cruise on the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Pak Ou ("Mouth of the Ou River").

Yes, the missus and I have returned from our sojourn of a dozen short days in the Land of a Million Elephants though recent surveys estimated that there are only about 700 pachyderms left roaming in Laos' wilderness. We saw exactly zero, and having no taste in having one such majestic beasts cart our asses around for jollies, did not seek out any of the 500 in captivity there.

We returned with a few odds, ends and 3000 photographs to show for our honeymoon, and in the fullness of time, I might blog about our trip in florid details. For now, here's an entrée - a postmortem of our recent vacation through the northerly regions of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

The Itinerary.

I love planning for backpacking trips and have always taken smug pride in my avoidance of paying tour agents to do it for me. In my life, I have only participated in 3 "tours". The first I remember was when I was 10 years old and my parents took the whole family to China - I vaguely remember unsatisfying food, too many old people, a measles outbreak within the tour group, and spending an inordinate amount of time in souvenir shops that our tour company no doubt reap a profitable cut from. My second experience in Udaipur and day trip to Chittorgarh was surprisingly incredible, if only because we hired a man - Mr Harmindra Singh - who truly loves his homeland and loves showing travelers around. We actually had to make him take us to a store to buy tourist junk.

My third encounter with arranged tours (this time a day trip to Agra from Delhi) soured my appetite for this sort of travel for good when our tour guide forced us to breakfast at a shitty eatery (I refused and walked down the street for far cheaper fare), cut our visit to the Taj Mahal criminally short just so he can force us to visit a souvenir shop (I refused to get out of the van), and finally stopped us by a tourist restaurant and souvenir emporium on the road back to Delhi filled with fat American tourists in spite of our protestations, turned off the ignition and disappeared for more than an hour (I refused to eat or buy anything). When we arrived in Delhi, he had the cheek to ask for more money, saying that the cost of the tour did not cover for driver's fee. I swore that I would never put myself at the mercy of these fatherfucking sharks ever again.

Here's a physical laminated copy of our itinerary which we took to Laos,

Laos Itinerary
It contains proposed daily activities, the budget in 3 currencies, flight plans, intercity transportation info, and the skinny on the guesthouses I had selected.

Drawing up itinerary is a joy in itself for me. It's like Sudoku or a jigsaw puzzle where instead of numbers or irregularly shaped bits, I try to mesh geographic locations, attractions, and local transportation timetables together into an elegant whole. The internet made this possible and foreign countries are no longer as impenetrable as they once were. With you calling the shots, you can eat what you want, stay where you want and spend as much time as you want drinking in the sights and scenery.

The Budget.

This is the entirety of our budget: 800 US dollars for 12 days, not inclusive of the price of the outbound and return flights.

Laos Budget
8 crisp Ben Franklins.

It is indicative of how little Malaysia cares about Laos (and vice versa) that we are unable to change Malaysian ringgits to Laotian kips in Malaysia, while the ringgit shows equal lack of purchase with Lao moneychangers. At the time of exchange, the 800 dollars cost me 2,640 in ringgits, which isn't too bad considering that it covered the expenses for two travelers. It was said that about a third of the currency circulating in the bloodstream of the Lao economy bears the faces of Hamilton, Franklin and assorted POTUS'es.

At the final tally, I found that we spent a grand total of 6,094,500 kips by the time we took off from the Wattay International Airport at Vientiane. A dollar buys you 8000 kips so that's about 762 dollars, so I still have a handful of US notes left over in my wallet now. That will go right into our future travel piggy.

The Sneak Preview.

Our route took us from Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang before finally doubling back on Vientiane. Tried as I could, I was unable to squeeze Phonsavan into the circuit without making the whole venture a race against time - something I would have to redress in my Siem Reap to Vientiane (by way of Central and Southern Laos) trip that I had begun dreaming about before I even left Vientiane last week.

We spent one plus two days in Vientiane,

COPE Visitor Centre
COPE Visitor Centre.


Minced Meat Parmentier with Veal Gravy
(Sort of) affordable genuine French cuisine.

Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang.

Three days in Vang Vieng,

View from Pha Ngeun
View of the Vang Vieng countryside from the peak of Pha Ngeun. Click on picture to see a larger copy.

Tham Phu Kam
Tham Phu Kam. Spelunkers included in frame for scale.

Tubing Down Nam Song
Tubing down the Nam Song.

And four days in Luang Prabang,

Haw Pha Bang and Handicraft Night Market
Haw Pha Bang towering over the tourist night market.

Wat Xieng Thong Sim
The iconic sǐm of Wat Xieng Thong.

Tat Kuang Si
Tat Kuang Si.

Tam Ting at Pak Ou
Innumerable Buddhas at Tam Ting.

This is just a teaser reel and I'll delve into the nitty-gritties in my subsequent posts. I have had blog readers e-mailing me for advice about my travels in India (another country that is not overly popular amongst Malaysians as a holiday destination) and I'd like to do Laos some justice. In hindsight, I probably could have done this trip in one hot week.

Of course, don't expect me to be quick about it. I am starting work again tomorrow and I am on-call three times this week. Just the thought of it makes me want another vacation.

Compulsive traveloguer,
k0k s3n w4i


mama nimbus said...

Were you ever a boy scout?

k0k s3n w4i said...

mama nimbus: Nope. Why did you ask?

darshan said...

Love dat shot of you tubing down the Nam Song with a beer ... giving yourself a great head ... of creamy foam!
Ok so did you had lotsa fun love & making whoopie on the trip? Didn't get the impression reading your blog, or maybe you are going to post the definitive account soon?

mama nimbus said...

Just wondering. You seem very well prepared for vacations. It's always good to have a planner in the group.

k0k s3n w4i said...

darshan: We went tubing on our last day in Vang Vieng and I wished I could have gone one more time before we left. A MUST DO in Laos if you are ever there. You can also stop on bars by the riverbank in route (they'll toss a rope out to reel you in).

mama nimbus: I enjoy researching the places I am going to before I head there. Since I can't vacation for long, I need to plan in order to do more. The only time I didn't plan was my 2011 trip through the Kangra and Chamba Valleys area in India - I just went town to town on a whim. That is the better way to travel, in my opinion.