A meeting-place of strangers


as published in the star weekender and the star online travel & lifestyle, 24 february 2007. copy of article also found online at clove two, 24 february 2007

It’s fun to hook up with other backpackers while travelling.


I am in Huay Xai – a quaint Mekong town west of Laos, along the north-eastern border of Thailand – and have a dilemma on my hands: take the slow boat or speed boat to Luang Prabang, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site?

The slow boat – a covered 12-seater wooden vessel – would take two full days with an overnight stop at Pak Beng. The speedboat would take a mere six hours to reach my destination.

They say the speedboat is an experience not to be missed, so next morning I am standing on a floating jetty, a ticket for the speedy eight-seater in hand, with an American, Israeli and an Irish man for company.

Our boat, which arrives 10 minutes late, is no bigger than a small sampan. Each beam across seats two – if a bit of a squeeze. The boatman hands out life vests and helmets to everyone, while an elderly lady offers earplugs for sale. The reason soon becomes apparent when the boat’s twin outboard motor roar to life – it’s deafening. I know now it’s going to be some ride.

The boat whizzes past forests, amazing rock formations and faraway mountain ranges. By lunch, we have reached Pak Beng. By dusk, we have arrived in Luang Prabang.

After freshening up at a decent backpacker guesthouse, we walk over to the famous night market located in the heart of town. By day, it’s just like any other street, but by night, it transforms into a colourful bazaar offering anything from patchwork quilts to stunning woodcarvings. The night market starts as early as 6pm.

In one corner, we find a number of stalls selling tropical fruits not much different from those you find in Malaysia. However, they were new to my companions. Globalisation is a Malaysian introducing an American and a Middle-Easterner to rambutan and durian in Laos, and all three later dining at an Indian restaurant!

The three of us rent bicycles the next day to explore the town. Luang Prabang is concentrated along a tiny peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan River. Our first destination is Wat Xieng Thong, said to be the most magnificent temple here. The temple, which dates back to 1560, is adorned with beautiful carvings and murals.

After a leisurely lunch at the edge of the Mekong, we cycle around town, taking in the sights. Thai Buddhist temples and French colonial buildings stand side by side. Every street is memorable and easy to navigate.

In the afternoon, we visit the Royal Palace Museum. Constructed in 1904, it was once the residence of the royal Lao family and is now filled with religious sculptures and priceless antiques. The most prized art piece is a golden standing Buddha called the Pha Bang, the name the town took.

That evening, we stop at a hawker stall on a street corner.

“All you can eat for just 5,000kip!” the sign says.

That’s just RM2, a backpacker’s kind of price. The table is quickly filled with travellers from all walks of life. We sit down to dinner in the company of two British men and two women from Sweden and Germany.

The next day, we hook up with other travellers and join a tour to the fringes of Luang Prabang. Our first stops that morning are at two traditional Lao villages on the Mekong, 45 minutes away via boat. The villages specialise in making rice cakes, paper lanterns and intricately woven scarves.

Later we visit Pak Ou, a cave temple at the mouth of Nam Ou River, 25km by boat up the Mekong. There are really two parts to the temple, a lower cave and a higher cave. Interestingly, the temple is cramped with thousands of Buddhist statues of every shape and size imaginable.

It is well into mid-afternoon when we arrive at our final destination of the day: the Kuang Xi Waterfalls.

After a quick lunch and introducing my companions to fresh coconut water for the first time, we trek through the forest in search of the waterfall. Now, the trick to the place is not to fall in love with the first beautiful pool of water you come across, which really isn’t easy.

We come across pool after pool of turquoise blue-green ponds, strung together by a series of gentle waterfalls; each one is stunning. We trek deeper into the Kuang Xi forest and eventually come to a picture-perfect waterfall, about 30m tall.

Unwinding on the veranda of our guesthouse later that night, I learn that my travel companions and I share a common passion for vintage rock and roll music. David Philips, the American, has been travelling for six months in Asia, and Ido Idel, the Israeli, embarked on this trip after completing compulsory military service back home.

We share stories on growing up in our respective countries, school and work. Though I am still in Asia, I get a glimpse of how life is like in places far away, beyond what the TV and movies portray.

Luang Prabang’s simplicity is refreshing, to say the least. No bright city lights, no monstrous smog-driven vehicles and blaring horns. Things seem so tranquil here, and no one is ever in a hurry.

Luang Prabang is relaxing. Perhaps even a little too relaxing for some of us high-strung travellers, but it is a good thing, really. It forces us to slow down a little and take a look around.

Few travellers leave Luang Prabang without the images of the mountain range rising from the Mekong imprinted in their minds.

Getting there

LUANG PRABANG deals in three currencies, the Lao kip, the Thai baht and the US dollar – simultaneously! I learnt that the most valuable is the dollar, followed by the baht, and then the kip. Unless you plan to stay in Laos for a while, insist on your change being given in dollar or baht.

DRESS appropriately. Temples here won’t let you enter in your sleeveless top, mini skirt or shorts.

BICYCLES are an excellent way to see the town. Although crime seems low in Luang Prabang, always lock your bicycle, preferably yours and your companions’ together!

Travel tips for solo female travellers

# Do your research before visiting a destination. The hardest part (trust me) is making your first friend on the road. Participate in online forums (e.g. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum at http://www.lonelyplanet.com) and get to know travellers going the same way.

# You DO NOT have to follow the first (and perhaps the only) traveller you meet going in your direction. It is always safer to travel with a companion you are comfortable with. Follow your instincts!

# Be flexible with your plans.

# Always go Dutch!

# Leave the prejudices you see on TV at home and be friendly to everyone you meet.

# Always allow someone at home know your whereabouts. Most Malaysian telecommunication networks have global roaming (yes, it works in Laos too). Internet cafes in Laos are on dial-up and may be a little slow, but they are widely available.

# While it is generally safe to walk around Luang Prabang alone, try not go out unaccompanied at night.


One Response to “A meeting-place of strangers”

  1. 1 themagic33

    You have some very beautiful pictures. Here are some interesting ancient and antique Buddha’s that you might find interesting.

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