After two months in Thailand, my visa was about to run out and it seemed time to pry myself away from the food stands in search of new experiences. With a few coconut milk rotee shoved in my pocket, I decided to tag along with my friend Jessica to the city of Luang Prabang in Laos
While it is possible to get to Luang Prabang by plane (expensively) or bus (close to 20 hours), we thought that a boat ride through the jungles of the country definitely had the most appeal. There are dozens of companies offering packaged bus-boat-hotel deals from Chiang Mai. But that is for weenies and old people, so we decided to figure it out on our own.
We headed to the bus station at 6am to buy tickets to the Thai border city Chiang Khong. Unfortunately, there were only two tickets left on the VIP bus, in the first class section. This effectively doubled the price of what we thought we would pay. But we went ahead and bit the bullet, reclined our giant padded seats, ate our free snacks, and took the next six hours to enjoy the consequences of poor planning.
Six hours later, the bus dropped us off on the side of the road. We followed signs down to the river and took a short boat ride to the city of Huay Xai in Laos, where we would stay for the night before heading to Luang Prabang.
In the spirit of adventure (and trying let go of some of my totally neurotic planning habits), we hadn’t booked any hotels in advance. We went through immigration and trudged up the hill to look for a place to sleep.
Huay Xai is pretty much a tiny port, a temple, and one dusty road that runs between the two.
We entered the first guesthouse we came across and asked to see a room. A somewhat disgruntled woman offered us a key and said we could go to the second floor. The room looked exactly like where the bad guys from a Liam Neeson movie might stay — and it never really ends well for them.
Jessica and I um-ed and hm-ed back and forth, neither wanting to be the one to ruin our fledgling backpacker cred by suggesting to leave. Eventually one of us casually suggested we “keep looking” and we shamefully scurried out, avoiding eye contact with the travelers on the porch who were hard core enough to stay.
After walking further up the hill, along an alley, and past several flocks of chickens we found ourselves at the Dauuw guesthouse. There was a beautiful porch overlooking the river and a Laotian woman playing with two toddlers in the corner.
We were shown to one of three small huts to the back of the house. Inside was a bed with a mosquito net and a rusted-over mirror. The sun shone inside through cracks in the poorly boarded together walls, and the roof was made of dried palm leaves. Despite it being just short of sleeping outside, there was something so inviting about the whole place, we both wanted to stay.
We later learned that the guesthouse is part of a program to provide job training to women from northern hill tribes. The employees actually live here with their families for several years, learning English and hospitality work. As a result we both felt like we’d been invited into someone’s home, rather than someone’s hotel.
We spent the afternoon on the porch drinking tea, talking to the family (which was mostly just smiling, pointing at something, and then nodding enthusiastically), and taking pictures of the kids – cue way too many pictures of preposterously cute babies.
We met up with a few other backpackers for dinner in town, but after peeking into some the tourist-filled restaurants, hurried back to our home stay to eat there.
There are only three things on the menu – whole chicken, whole fish, and whole vegetables. We ordered a chicken and fish to divide between us. While it took almost two hours to get the food – I’m pretty sure they had to go kill the chicken before they cooked it – it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten. I was literally gnawing on the bone in an attempt to get every ounce of salty, wood fired flavor.
The families running the home stay sat at the table next to us eating their own dinner. Afterward we all laid with eyes half-closed in front of the bonfire (that a nine-year old girl with a machete had just made by herself – apparently children here are born badasses).
Between the food, the view, and the atmosphere, I couldn’t pick which direction to be happiest in.
Hey, Laos. I think I love you.