Luang Prabang, Laos (Second Visit)

Mark, Kane and I were going in the same direction from Huay Xai – right back down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.  Considering our experience taking the speedboat up the river, you’d think we’d go for the slow boat or the bus this time.  But Kane made the case that we’d already taken our hit and therefore the speedboat made the most sense.  Mark and I liked Kane’s “lightning never strikes the same place twice” argument, although it was a little too easy to picture ourselves standing on a deserted sandbar as night fell.

Graham and Lindsey, the British couple in our Gibbon Experience group, pushed us over the edge.  They were going to Luang Prabang too, and with five people we could buy out all the seats on our own speedboat and ride in relative comfort.

Bregje, the Dutch girl traveling by herself, had originally said she wanted to take the two-day slow boat to Luang Prabang, but when she heard about our plans she asked to join us.  We told her about our experience coming upriver and explained the layout of a speedboat.  If she came with us, two people would be miserable because they’d have to contort themselves into a tiny compartment for a minimum of six hours.

Cue the guilt trip.  Bregje looked hurt and said if we wouldn’t take her she’d have to travel alone.  Given that she was traveling alone I didn’t feel too bad for her, but we wanted to find a way to make it work.  We suggested splitting into two groups and hiring two boats.  It would cost more, but all of us said we’d do it.  “No, I don’t want to pay more,” said Bregje.  That was enough for us and Bregje stormed off.  Kane said he saw her the next morning and she wouldn’t even make eye contact.  Bregje didn’t appear to be enjoying her trip very much.

It turns out that Kane was spot on with his lightning theory:  he, Mark, Graham, Lindsey, and I breezed down the river in six short hours without a single incident.

 

Grandmother in Pak Beng

 

That night in Luang Prabang the five of us met for dinner.  Mark and Kane were leaving for Vang Vieng the next morning so we had to say goodbye.  Thanks to our misadventures – the inadvertent homestay in Luong Thong and the highs and lows of the Gibbon Experience – I felt like I’d been friends with those guys for a long time and I was bummed out see them go.

My plan was just to hang out in Luang Prabang for however many days it took to work through my photos, catch up on the blog, and – most critically – prepare for my fantasy football draft.

 

Sunset Over the Mekong

 
On Monday the energy level of the town picked up and more people appeared on the streets.  Graham heard from a local that a big boat race was scheduled for Wednesday (9/8).  I don’t claim to understand the significance of the race or the associated festivities, but I read that it has something to do with Nagas.  Apparently the Lao people believe that during the rainy season the Nagas – snake-shaped water spirits – migrate from the rivers up to the rice paddies, and as the rainy season ends the boat races help lure the Nagas back down where they belong.  On the morning of race day the boat teams visited local Wats for blessings from the monks.

 

Monks Blessing a Boat Team

 

Monks Watching Boat Team Blessing

 
Locals packed the banks of the Nam Kahn river by Luang Prabang’s old quarter.  Children played carnival games, adults chain-drank Beer Lao, and normally-reserved people cut loose.

 

Beer Lao Party Boat

 

Beauty Queens Join a Practice Run

 

Red and Blue Practice Run

 

Boat Race Crowd (Video)

 

The races began at 1pm.  The boats competed two at a time and each winner advanced to the next round.  Big crowds cheered them on from the riverbank.

 

Blue vs. Yellow

 

Cheering Crowd

 

Red Boat Blur

 

White Boat

 

Neck and Neck

 

Yellow-Green Boat

 

Boat Race (Video)

 

At sunset drunken groups scattered throughout the city.  The Lao people seem to segregate themselves by gender when they drink in public – the men got loaded with the men and the women got loaded with the women.  Packs of stumbling men were everywhere, and I walked by several small groups of women drinking, yelling, and dancing together in circles.  One group of young guys leaned against a tricked-out pickup truck with massive speakers and two video screens in the back, the bass thumping so loud it made the street signs vibrate.  Clearly some people in Laos earn a lot more than the average per capita income of $2.40 a day.  Normally when I’m traveling I get restless if I stay for a while in any one place, but I found it difficult to finally leave Luang Prabang and start working my way south.