Michigan's worst post-winter pothole-filled roads couldn't have prepared me for the journey from Luang Prebang to Vang Vieng. Whoever's in charge of Laos's roads makes the Michigan DOT look like the paradigm efficiency and effectiveness. It didn't help that the driver and three Lao men sitting in front of me stopped to pee off the side of the road every ten minutes for the first hour. Despite this, however, our driver somehow managed to maneuver the potholes, sharp "S"-shaped curves and steep inclines with the casual grace of drag racer. By the time we reached Vang Vieng that night (after a thirty minute dinner break for the Lao men at 11 PM - we did not know this would be a part of our trip until they got out of the van and started eating noodle soup), it was well after midnight. And then we got lost.
It had been a long day of exploring the temples of Luang Prebang and enjoying the croissants and fruit drinks of the local cafes. Miki and I woke up, had our usually breakfast of greasy eggs and a baguette and headed out to explore the Wats of Luang Prebang. The problem with traveling on a budget is that you can't afford to have a tour guide walking you around the temples, explaining the symbolism of each gold-flecked Buddha and temple. Thanks to the digital age, Wikipedia has an abundance of answers to any and all of our questions and proved to be especially helpful when I wanted to know more about the history of Laos and The Secret War.
We started our temple trek with Mt. Phou Si at the very top of Luang Prebang. 326 steps up where a beautiful 360 degree view awaited us. The temples at the top of Phou Si were filled with the traditional Buddha relics covered in gold foil and alters decorated with orange and pink flowers. Further down the mountainside, a giant sleeping Buddha accompanied a "stop arguing" Buddha of equal size, and below him, my personal favorite, fat Buddha. Back on the streets of the city, we visited three more temples, each with more Buddha statues, slopped roofs and gold and red detail than the next. At my favorite temple, a mosaic of the tree of life decorated the backside of one wat , reminding me that different religions aren't so different from one-another after all. Eventually, we became templed-out and decided to take a seat at a local French cafe recommended to us by Miki's Lonely Planet book. The ice cream and croissants were delicious, but we stuck around after to do a bit more reading and blog writing.
Eventually, it was time to head back to the hostel for our pickup. What began as an innocent Tuk-Tuk ride to the bus station, quickly turned into an hour-long delay with some of the most sweet but uptight travel companions. After ensuring our bags were, indeed, strapped to the roof, we piled into the very hot van and started our journey to Vang Vieng. Six hours and five pit-stops later (including the thirty minute aforementioned dinner stop), we arrived at Vang Vieng. I practically kissed the ground when I got out of the van; I had never been more excited to fall asleep in a hostel bunkbed. Unfortunately, our journey took another hour as an unplanned detour to the wrong hostel was followed by confusing map directions. My first impression of Vang Vieng was not a good one - drunk foreigners overflowing into the streets outside a local bar, a bunch of street food merchants selling said drunk foreigners sandwiches and crepes. A tear-stained Dutch girl offered to give us directions to our hostel, but she was too drunk to remember which way to point us. I was exhausted, sweaty and sticky from a long day in the hot sun and an even longer night bouncing around in the backseat of a tourist van. Finally, a drunk Israeli named Yuval (or as his friends apparently called him, "River") came to our rescue. Leave it to the Israelis to hold their liquor the best. We found our hostel, I jumped into the shower (not after spending a good fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to turn the water on) and my head finally hit the pillow at 2:15, the latest I had gone to bed in a long time.