After boarding the bus that would take us north from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, we managed to get away with two seats each on either side of the aisle by making our backpacks seem much larger and clumsier than they actually were so nobody would try to squeeze in next to us. It's a trick that almost never works! We are rock stars!
Route 13 is the busiest highway in Laos, and the stretch of road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang is also considered to be the prettiest. And sure enough, about an hour into our seven-hour bus ride, we started climbing in elevation and the scenery went wild. I really can't think of any place I've ever been with views quite as stunning as these. Maybe Switzerland? But in a different way. Laos is incredible, it really is. My "out the bus window" pics don't do it justice.
B and I kept looking at each other with googly eyes, pointing out the windows at peaks and valleys and mouthing phrases like "can you believe this shit?!" We always have to mouth phrases back and forth on buses because neither of us can hear the other over our respective iPod headphones, which are always inserted at high volume to drown out reality, always. No bus ride could be attempted without a musical soundtrack to help dull the pain of impossibly dusty/muddy roads, crater-sized potholes, frequent near-collisions, bus drivers who put their feet up on the dashboard and honk at villagers to scurry out of the way instead of braking, etc. Headphones are The Only Way To Survive.
We finally pulled into the Luang Prabang (also known as Luang Phabang, and I'm not sure which is more acceptable) bus station, hopped on a tuk-tuk, and had the driver drop us off in the center of town. Feeling clueless, we ended up following a young guy who promised us paradise and luxury for $7/night at his "brother's" guesthouse (it's always a family member, they think it makes the transaction sound more friendly and homey, and I guess it kind of does because you can't really prove that it isn't really his brother's guesthouse, they might really be one big happy family with rooms for rent, right? even though it's total BS and I am not fooled, no sir).
I never like giving into these family-oriented guesthouse salespeople. In my mind, if a guesthouse is that great, they shouldn't have to actively solicit business from backpackers...paying customers will just magically gravitate there by word-of-mouth and make them rich. Brendan hates this theory of mine and never wants to engage in my "we're in a new town, so let's just spend half an hour looking at rooms and comparing prices" routine. He wants to put his backpack down. He doesn't care about a few extra dollars. I know I shouldn't either, but I also hate feeling like a sucker because I didn't try. Plus, bargain hunting is like a game, and games are FUN!
We took the $7 room. It was not luxurious and did not resemble paradise in the least, but it did have dark wooden walls, a bed, a fan, and a balcony with a view of the Mekong River, so all was not lost.
Luang Prabang is often described with adjectives like "magical" and "majestic", which is annoying until you actually get here and discover that they're right. The old part of town (French colonial splendor) is charming to say the least, built on and around a hill and surrounded by the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. It also boasts a thriving economy and barely resembles most of poverty-stricken Laos. At least ten wats are within short walking distance from our guesthouse. We can order banana bread and sip espresso next to an attractive redhead at the local bakery, reading the International Herald Tribune while watching the monks go by for hours and hours if we want, or browse locally-made textile and silver jewelry shops. Spiritual meets Cosmopolitan meets Easy-Going. People are genuinely happy to be here. The Morans certainly are, even though we haven't accomplished a whole lot beyond wat-seeing, bike riding, and inner peace. But everybody else is doing the same thing so it's perfect. Much as I enjoyed Vietnam, this lifestyle wasn't possible there. Too much bustle. Too much hassle. Too much wheeling and dealing and getting accosted and always having to say "no thanks", "I don't want any". Laos is such a relief in that way. Long Live Laos!
We're heading up the Nam Ou river by boat tomorrow, into territory designated by our guidebook as "The Far North". Sounds cool. Can't wait.
Until then, I remain,
Sarah: Lover of Laos