I spent the first few days figuring that Laotians must really love Jack Johnson. Everywhere we went we were inundated with signs for banana pancakes. WTH? So finally, one day, while singing (and consequently craving) Banana Pancakes, I decided to look it up. I had no idea that the common backpackers trail through SE Asia was known as the Banana Pancake Trail. I’m still not 100% sure why. The only info I found was because locals would serve tourist banana pancakes…honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever even had a banana pancake.
ANYWAY…as Brian and I continued on the infamous Banana Pancake Trail, we decided to travel further north before heading down south to Luang Prabang. This was all Brian’s doing as I wasn’t sure I needed to see another quaint, sleepy mountain town. Especially one that, unbeknownst to us, required an overnight stop in a random town called Oudomxay on the world’s most uncomfortable public bus clearly designed for tiny people. We were the only tourists on board, unless the rabbit and box of chickens we were traveling with fall into the tourist category as well.
300 kilometers and seven hours later we arrived at the Oudomxay bus station. A place where English has never been spoken. I swear. Having realized after spending our entire day on a bus that we would need to spend the night in this mystery town, we figured we would buy tickets for Nong Khiaw, our next destination, at the bus station. But of course, nothing is ever that easy and so we too failed at this seemingly simple task. Anytime we asked about Nong Khiaw, everyone would just point down the road. We finally gave up and started our now normal routine of going door to door at each guesthouse in search of a somewhat clean bed. It wasn't too long before we finally settled on a semi decent room with lukewarm water, a squat pot, and a ceiling fan that definitely would have ripped us to shreds if we attempted to turn it on. But it only cost us 60,000 kip ($8). Also, as a side note, Laos currency is our least favorite to date. 1 Laotian Kip is equivalent to .00015 of a dollar and they only use banknotes. The smallest of which is a 500 note which amounts to $.065! Let's just say, the math was not easy.
We ended up having a really lovely dinner and evening stroll in town (if you can call it a town?) before heading to bed confused and anxious about the next morning. We knew the bus left at 9:00 am (at least we thought we knew) so we gave ourselves several buffer hours just to be sure. That morning, we flagged down a tuk tuk and showed him Nong Khiaw on the map. Turns out, this tiny town has more than one bus station, which is what everyone was trying to tell us the day before. We bought our tickets and now had three solid hours to kill since the bus didn’t leave until 10am.
After spending several hours at a very local soup shop, it was finally time to board the bus, which much to our delight, turned out to be more of a minivan. Even with our 3 hour advance on everyone else, there were only two seats left in the front row when the van arrived. And I'm sure you will not be shocked to read that the window and door seat were already taken. The next five hours were spent freezing sitting next to a mother vomiting into a clear plastic bag while I held her inconsolable child. It was not pleasant.
A tip for anyone planning on visiting Laos on a budget. If you suffer from motion sickness, even in the slightest, make sure you have plenty of medication with you or opt for a flight because the roads are about as fun trying to hold a slinky covered in jelly.
As if the minivan ride from hell wasn’t torture enough, Brian thought it would be fun to “wing it” when it came to our guesthouse in Nong Khiaw, despite the fact that its a tiny mountain village flooded with tourists. With our achy bodies and restless legs, we walked in the afternoon heat, all our baggage in tow, as we went door to door to each guesthouse. And while they all greeted us with a friendly Sabaidee, the final answer was always "full." We probably went to 25 different guesthouses before I finally gave in and lost my cool (okay I lost my cool a long time ago but I was playing along for the time being). I refused to move anymore and I sat down on the side of the street and told Brian that since it was his great idea not book in advance, it can be his great adventure to find us a decent place to sleep, preferably with walls. It came down to two choices, a beautiful bungalow overlooking the Nam Ou river for 200,000 Kip ($24) or a very, VERY basic room reminiscent of a jail cell for 60,00 Kip ($8). Brian of course chose the latter but made the mistake of showing me the beautiful bungalow after he made his decision (nice words were not exchanged that evening).
Despite losing at Guesthouse Monopoly, we really enjoyed our time in Nong Khiaw. We had our first break from SE Asian food and went back to India for delicious Aloo Gobi and PBM (Paneer Butter Masala). I’m still not sure why but there are a lot of Indian restaurants in Nong Khiaw.
We hiked an hour and a half directly uphill to one of the most beautiful viewpoints either of us have ever seen (I seem to be making this claim a lot but it's true! They just keep getting more beautiful). We later found out that the Phadeng Peak hike was also a seriously dangerous hike having been one of the most heavily bombed regions during the Vietnam War.
We rewarded ourselves that evening by indulging in the Q Bar’s happy hour where I proceeded to make six passionfruit cocktails disappear (they were buy one get one free!). We met a couple nearing the end of their Midlife Leap from NY, and spent the evening discussing US current events, fears of travels coming to an end, and also some of the modern comforts of home that we miss. Or at least this is what Brian told me the following day since I don’t remember a single thing after passionfruit cocktail number 3.
As if Nong Khiaw wasn’t the epitome of beautiful, remote, picturesque mountain town in Laos, Brian wanted to travel further north to another town up the Nam Ou called Muang Ngoi. This time, we pre-booked our guesthouse.
See you there!