I know that most people have to travel on a schedule. People with jobs, people in school, people with families (I guess the general population excepting wanderlust twenty-something’s) typically have a minimal amount of time that they can spend traveling. In that case, schedules make sense. Maybe they are necessary. But in my position, having ahead of me three completely open months, schedules are not required. I can stay how long I want in a place, leave before I expected to, change my plans overnight. This is also a serious perk of traveling alone, I must say.
Probably my favorite part of un-scheduled travel is the time I can spend in transit. On a normal trip of maybe two or three weeks in an area, spending three days just to get somewhere is considered a ‘waste’ of time. Minimizing travel time is ideal so that you can see more and spend less time on a bus or train or boat or plane. But to me, the transit should be a piece of the travel! I now have the fortune to spend days getting somewhere, either as a straight shot or meandering until I arrive.
Taking a slow boat down the Mekong from Thailand to Laos is a perfect example of embracing the transit. Starting in Chiang Mai three days before arriving in Luang Prabang, I hopped a three hour bus to Chiang Rai, then another three hours to Chang Khong, at which point I caught a tuk tuk to the Laos border and was ushered across the Mekong from one country to the other, passed through immigration ($35 USD and a smile from the cute Laos border patrol officers), and found the first cheap guest house to crash at with a few other backpackers, with enough time for dinner and lots of cold Beer Lao before bed. Maybe it sounds tiring, but when you’re in for the ride and without a bulleted itinerary it’s amazingly relaxing. Then again I am a huge fan of alone time in transit. With a bag of snacks and my iPod I can be content for days on end. Easy to please!
That was only day one of the journey to Laos – the next morning we boarded an eighty foot (who am I kidding? I have no idea how long the boat was. Eighty feet sounds legit.) wooden long boat with other travelers, and began the seven and a half hour journey to Pak Beng, the halfway point to Luang Prabang. While I’m sure Pak Beng was once a quaint Laotian town along the banks of a great river, it now caters pretty exclusively to the backpacking tourists that come through every day, weary from a day of doing nothing and eager to spend a few bucks on dinner, beer and drugs. Our lovely guest house owner promptly informed us after showing us our rooms that she sold the best weed, coke and opium in town and that, if we liked, we could smoke one or all three in the room. Very generous, no?
And then another seven or eight or nine hours on the boat before the arrival in Luang Prabang. We were a scraggly bunch of restless backpackers by the end of the trip, but again, if you have the time and are in for the journey, it is so enjoyable. The scenery is stunning and the boat trip really is the best way to see the Mekong as far as I can tell.
Food is, of course, an issue for me on these long travel days. While everyone else is enjoying baguette sandwiches and cookies and crepes, I’m downing banana number eighty three and debating if I should give up any hope of self-control and get on the boat loaded down with Pringles and peanuts M&Ms. Paleo? Not so much, but gluten free is the bigger concern for me, and I’ll take what I can get.
Luckily the second day I had coffee with butter in it, bought a chicken leg and two sausages for snack (haha, ‘snack’) and had two omelette for breakfast, and I was good to go! Dear animal protein, I love you. You do me good.
As lovely as the boat trip was, the arrival in Luang Prabang was a relief. It has taken me a full day to stop wondering if the restaurant I’m eating in is sliding back and forth ever so gently. Mm, sea legs.
As per my schedule-less existence, I’ve decided I’m staying in Luang Prabang until I am good and ready to leave. When that will be I have no idea, but by the feel of it so far it might be a while. The town is stunning – just the right size, full of good cheap food, beautiful french colonial buildings and weathered temples, and getting outside of town into the jungle is a 25 minute ride on a rickety rented bicycle. Totally my kind of place. Plus the Lao people are some of the sweetest, most relaxed people I’ve encountered. Thank you, Calcutta, for making every other place on the planet a little more awesome.
Oh, and there’s this, which I’ve nicknamed The Dinner Gauntlet:
A plate is handed to you. You pay 10,000 kip ($1.25 US.) You pile whatever you can fit onto said plate. You pile whatever you can fit into your belly. You are so happy! Maybe you go back for another plate. Maybe you decide that’s ridiculous. Maybe you do it anyway…
So I will be here for a bit, exploring on foot and on bicycle, spending as little money as possible, writing, reading and eating to my hearts content. I think I’ll be heading to Bali next via Malaysia (literally so I can eat more. The food in KL was the best!), and then back up to Thailand for the water festival/new year celebration Songkran, a meditation retreat and more Chiang Mai!