“Tal lat Phosy sam yeck wi ta nya rai kaan eung un?” Amy read off her iPhone screen. I looked at the Tuk-tuk driver’s face, hoping the sounds she just uttered would somehow render into meaning. Somehow, this message we’d received from our Air BnB reservation was supposed to direct us to beds. No chance. Then again, Amy’s ability to correctly pronunciate Laos is about as good as Josie’s ability to speak French. So, we tried our best speaker – Mia. Mia tried, and it sounded like Laos to me, but the driver still stared with incomprehension.
We tried to let the driver read the message, nothing. He flagged down two other drivers to look at it. Nope. Google translate? The app kept thinking the message was in arabic, WTF? No phone number, no email address, just this cryptic sentence, and a vague blue location circle on the Air BnB map. Arrgghh!
Finally, we just asked to get dropped off near the Phosy Market, hoping we could stumble into our place near the only decipherable landmark from the message. So, we walked some side streets; Amy asked passerbys and a receptionist at a swanky river resort for help, strikes two and three. But, the receptionist felt sorry for us and offered a room for $100 (normally like $140/night). Amy was all in, and ready to override me if I hesitated over budget. Apparently, I said “oh, okay,” which Amy thought meant we’ll take it. I followed up with “that’s too much, no way.” Amy hid it well but told me her heart sank at the denial. The kids groaned.
After twenty minutes, mutiny was a real possibility, so we plopped down, defeated, on a crumbly concrete sidewalk. Motorbikes and cars streamed purposefully by, the sun was bright but no longer hot, and we were hungry. This is the kind of story that I expected when I was a single traveler. But with kids getting hangrier, not so fun! Welcome to Luang Prabang.
Our spirits were low, having just stepped off a surprisingly enjoyable two-day river journey down the Mekong River from Huay Xai, and the amazing Gibbon Experience. We had traveled by “slow boat,” a long wooden vessel that could seat around 70 people, and stuff 30 or 40 in the back near the giant diesel engine. The scenery was interesting – a river thick with silt, swift and turbulent. The canyon walls were a fragmented mix of jungle, rocky outcrops, and villages, frequently interrupted by large equipment – cranes, bulldozers and backhoes readying this river for a Chinese and Thai-funded series of dams. It reminded me a bit of what the Columbia might have been like before Bonneville and Grand Coulee.
In the boat we had time to read and play with new travel companions. A young guy, Niels, from Netherlands, started several card games. He took a liking to Porter, teaching him new games and discussing strategy. The best was when he asked if we wanted to learn,
“Shithead, it’s a classic British drinking game. Not too hard, so you can keep playing when you get really drunk. There’s no winners, just one shithead!”
World exposure comes in many forms. Very fun. I was shithead once, so was Porter.
The boat dropped us off an annoying 10 km north of Luang Prabang at 4 pm, forcing us to pay for a tuk-tuk into town. By 6pm, sitting on the curb, we were all feeling like the losers of the card game, but fortunately our luck was about to change. In good macho style, I told them to wait steet-side while I went in search of our digs. I ran down a small street, sniffing for a good spot to be a guesthouse. I saw a beautiful large white house right on the river, and thought/hoped it might be it.
There were a couple kids toys and a soccer ball on the porch, good signs. I entered the lobby, it was deserted, with a thin layer of construction dust on the floor. There was a front desk, but no advertisements or order to the piles of papers. A kid, maybe 6 years old in spider-man PJs, darted out of a hallway. At the sight of me, he turned heel and scampered down a wide teak staircase. “Hello, sa bai dee?” I called out after him in English and Laos (about the only word I say that is understood).
A Laos woman about my age walked up the stairs, “Can I help you?” in lovely English. Her name was Noi. I asked for directions to our place, but she didn’t know about it. Although her hotel appeared vacant, I asked if she had a room for us. She seemed momentarily puzzled, but then broke into a grin and said, “Yes, but will you eat? Our kitchen is not ok,” she apologized.
Noi showed me the room; it was beautiful, with a private veranda overlooking the river and the dirt hole where a swimming pool will eventually be built. It should have been expensive, but no pool or food made for a cheap offer, $36 and I talked her down to $30. I think maybe the hotel was closed for construction, judging from no other guests, but the rooms were all done up and ready for visitors, weird.
I marched back and grabbed Amy and kids. We flopped into the room after weathering many more apologies for no kitchen. Mia was ecstatic about the place, especially when she saw it had a proper hot water shower (which turned out to be her “best in two months.”) After settling in, everyone was too tired to go out for food. But, I know my family, they would sooner wither of starvation than make the effort to find a proper meal, so I offered to go fetch food. Back out on the streets the night market was already shut down, but there were a few vendors still open under weak fluorescent lights. I bought baguettes, hun-bao rolls, instant noodles, sticks of some sort of charcoaled meat, and oh, look there, Beer Lao! Things were looking up.
I brought my prizes back to our hotel. Noi and her family were enjoying their own dinner, and Noi offered us a table. I ran upstairs to get Amy and the kids. Meanwhile Noi had put our food out for us and brought out some plates and cutlery. Once the food was out, it became very clear that I had bought the dregs of the night market. The meat was sinewy chunks of chicken skin and maybe some type of pork knuckle? The hun-boa was ok, but too chewy, like it had been sitting under a heat lamp all night. The baguettes were dry and crusty. Noi couldn’t stand it, so she offered to make us a plate of fried rice. She brought it out, beautifully done, and it was delicious.
While we ate, Mr. Chen Thome pulled up a chair. He turned out to be the owner of the hotel, a wealthy man of Laos-Chinese descent. He had a big smile, and was eager to sit with us. He could not speak any English, but he had a friend, Kham Sang, with him who could, and so could Noi. We hacked through some conversation, and soon discovered that Mr. Chen Thome was a businessman, he owned a couple factories in China. We saw a few pictures of giant pigs hanging from hooks, while we ate chicken or pork fried rice. Never look in the sausage factory! Mr. Chen Thome found out that he and I are the same age. That’s when he started bringing out cans of cold Beer Lao. “Cheers!” over and over and over. It turns out that we were the first western guests at the hotel, and the reconstruction was to make the hotel more desirable for westerners. Perhaps we all felt equally fortunate.
The following day, we thanked our hosts, took about a hundred pictures, then searched for a room closer to town with better food nearby. We found a lovely guest house on the Nam Khan river, an old French-colonial teak house run by Mr. Sam, a nice man with three teenage kids. We ended up spending a relaxing week in Luang Prabang, just enjoying leisurely strolls around town with a few other adventures like:
Eating delicious food
shopping at the night market
movie nights at L’estrange book store (Sully and Dr. Strange)
swimming in the river and at Kuang Si waterfall
“A Quest for Pain” bike ride – Porter and I sought up some mountain biking with not enough water, no good directions, and bikes in need of some Chad Wertz attention. Bad start, painful middle, a few laughs at the end, same story as our landing in Luang Prabang.
A class at the “Weaving Sisters” which will probably need its own post.
Good times. I think we were trying to find a little peaceful hamlet to live our “regular life,” similar to Bellingham for a few days. Bham is the “city of subdued excitement.” Luang Prabang seemed like the city of subdued Asia.
Here is a video of swimming: