Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Mekong River

Waiting for the ferry

Waiting for the ferry across the Mekong in southern Laos near Pakse in July 2007.

And who’s the little boy in the back wearing the blue shirt? It’s Bia!

Check out more photos of Laos and commentary on my upstart and exclusive Laos’ blog All Things Laotian.

Ferry ‘cross the Mekong

One of my first trips in Laos was back in July of 2007 when Aon, her family (her mom, younger sister, and Bia) and I visited the famous Buddhist temple and Khmer ruins Wat Phou Champasak near Pakxe in southern Laos.

Getting there was quite an interesting journey because to get to the temple and the ruins one has to cross the mighty, magnificent Mekong River on a ferry.

For those who are vaguely familiar with the Mekong River, the name alone conjures up all sorts of images whether it’s the Mekong Delta from the Vietnam War or if you are much of a Thai whiskey drinker, Mekong Whiskey. However, for those who live along its winding path, the river is an important waterway and natural resource.

The river itself can get quite wild during the rainy season (last year in the capital city of Vientiane it rose above flood stage and flooded out streets that run along its banks) but when I crossed it in the July of 2007, it was simply magnificent and peaceful.

The ferry is a couple of boats lashed together with a makeshift platform to accommodate a few cars and a bus or two. It might not look like much, but it serves its purpose well ferrying people and vehicles across the Mekong.

It takes no more than thirty minutes to cross, and when the weather is gorgeous like it was the day we crossed it, the scenery is breathtaking.

Luang Prabang — Shangri-la in the Mekong Valley

Luang Prabang

Unless one is well traveled or familiar with historical and cultural destinations in Southeast Asia, one might not have ever heard of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.

Far from being one of the region’s best kept secrets (after all, it is a World Heritage City) Luang Prabang—situated at the confluence of Nam Khan (Khan River) and the Mekong River—is noted for its idyllic beauty and dreamy serenity juxtaposed with gleaming temple roofs and French provincial architecture.

To be sure, the name Luang Prabang alone conjures up classic images of Laos—from streets lined with colonial houses and towering palm trees to lines of saffron-robed monks gliding through an early morning mist to collect alms and longtail boats plying the muddy Mekong—images which have lured and captivated seasoned travelers over the years.

Additionally, the city’s royal mystique along with its rich Buddhist heritage makes Louang Prabang a city like no other in Laos.

Wat Xiang Thong

I first thought about going to Luang Prabang in 2006 when I was traveling in Thailand after having left Korea. I wanted to go somewhere special for a few days before I returned to the States and was thinking about either going to Siem Reap and taking in the sights at Angkor Wat or Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, I was a little short on funds at the time and in the end it was more economical for me to go to Siem Reap.

When Aon and I were together in Vientiane at the end of December and early January we decided to visit Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, time not funds this time would be somewhat of a problem so we could only squeeze in one day along with the day it would take us to get here by bus and the day it would take us to get back to Vientiane.

First of all, one or two days are definitely not enough time for exploring Luang Prabang. It is enough time to take in some of the major attractions like Wat Xiang Thong, Wat Mai, and the Royal Palace Museum, but to fully appreciate this lovely city you need at least 2-3 days to leisurely stroll its streets and enjoy its rich cultural and historical heritage, not to mention its trove of restaurants, cafés, and shops.

We got in around 5:00pm, a little later than I thought we would. Buses from Vientiane stop at the Nanluang Bus Terminal—around three kilometers to old Luang Prabang and the city center.

Although we had booked a guesthouse at a travel agency in Vientiane, we had no idea where the guesthouse was located. Additionally, we also had to pick up our bus tickets for our return trip to Vientiane on Friday.

It was a little chaotic at the bus station with tuk-tuk drivers trying to hustle passengers. You have to be a little careful and try to bargain with them. It should only cost you around $3.00 or 27,000 Kip for a ride into the center of town, but some drivers wanted more. Have to play a little hardball with the tuk-tuk drivers and not give in. However, when you’ve just traveled for over nine hours the last thing you want to do is have to bargain with a tuk-tuk driver. Maybe they know that and try to take advantage of unsuspecting and tired tourists.

We called the travel agency’s office in Luang Prabang and got an idea where it was located before we took a tuk-tuk. Sure enough, it was only about a five-minute ride to the city center and from where we were dropped off, about another ten-minute walk to the travel agency.

Too late to do any exploring, after we got to our guest house we went out to find something to eat, which isn’t a problem given the preponderance of restaurants and cafes in the area. You can’t walk five meters without coming across another eatery. Most places are modest with more than an ample standard fare. Prices are, well a little pricey for Laos, but with more and more travelers coming here, it would be what you would expect. Of course, after nine hours on a bus, anything is going to sound good to eat regardless of the price.

The one ATM (one in 2008) seemed to be the hottest place in town with everyone queued up to get some cash.

Sunset along the Mekong

Sunset along the Mekong RiverSunset along the Mekong River

It’s almost 6:00 on a Friday evening in Vientiane as On and I spend our last night together here this time.

We’ve just returned from a photo shop where we had some of our digital photos printed, had a nice stroll back to our hotel and now, thinking about where we are going to have dinner this evening. Want to have something special, perhaps some Thai or Lao food this evening.

Sunset along the Mekong River

We stop for a moment across the street from the Inter City Hotel to take some photos of the setting sun before having dinner. Every night it is the same sun-setting scene. If you miss it one night, don’t worry. There’ll be another breathtaking sunset the next day. 

Breathtaking. That pretty much sums up what the past week has been like here.

Arriving in Vientiane

It’s a cool December night and On and I are sitting around a small table at this outdoor café along the banks of the Mekong River just across the street from the Inter City Hotel having dinner. 

I got in about two hours ago after a ninety-minute flight on a propeller driven Lao Aviation ATR from Hanoi to Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport. It was a real sweet flight, not a bit of turbulence and some decent in-flight service. It was awesome flying over the mountains into Laos with the sun beginning to set.  

Once I arrived at Wattay International Airport it didn’t take too long to get my visa on arrival (only $35.00) and go through immigration. It was probably a good thing that I took the less-crowded flight from Hanoi to Vientiane: only a handful of people had to apply for a visa. I was in and out of there within twenty minutes, walked downstairs to get my baggage and then walk outside to the arrival area where On was waiting for me.

It had been three months—three very long months—since we last were together in Bangkok and had been looking forward to this week-long holiday ever since. 

Exchanged some money at the airport, which turned out to be a good idea because the rates were not as good the rest of the time I was in Vientiane. However, the cashier made a mistake and gave me more Kip than I was supposed to receive and later, when On and I got to the hotel we got a phone call from a panicky bank employee telling us of the error. When you exchange money, they make a copy of your passport and ask for your hotel name—which ended up being good for them because they could quickly contact me. Interestingly, the way that the cashier was able to reach us was by calling the taxi driver who had taken us to our hotel.   

Once we got that sorted out and left the extra Kip with the hotel staff, we checked into our room and then decided to have something to eat. More about the Inter City Hotel later, but for now it was a good idea booking this hotel when I was in Korea. Rooms are a little pricey—54.00 a night for a deluxe room, plus a buffet breakfast—but from what I have heard it is one of the better deals for hotels in Vientiane.  

Across the street—Fa Ngum Road—from our hotel, a trove of outdoor cafés and drink stalls line the banks of the Mekong River. Most of them sell fresh fish and other seafood as well as spicy papaya salad and barbecued chicken. Feeling a little jetlagged and On feeling a little tired after her ten-hour bus ride from her village south of Savannakhet, we stopped at one of these cafés closest to our hotel. Sadly, the service and the food was not too great, not to mention a little expensive, so we ended up having a late dinner at a small restaurant next to our hotel. 

We did go for a walk along Fa Ngum Road and stopped at a mini mart—just past the Nazim Indian Restaurant—to pick up a few things. Surprisingly, it didn’t seem as crowded as I thought it would be for this time of the year, the peak tourist season. There were a number of people sitting outside some cafés and restaurants, but it wasn’t too crowded. 

What’s really exciting though, is to be here in Vientiane with On at the end of the year and to begin 2008 together. That is what is definitely going to make this a special time to be somewhere exotic and special with someone special.

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