Luang Prabang was a dream. Very much the Laos version of Hoi An and a place I could see myself staying for a while. In fact, I did just that. I posted up in this quaint river town for a little over a week to hole up and write.. and write some more… and some more. I wrote a lot. I isolated myself from others, staying in guesthouses over hostels so that I had plenty of alone time and no distractions.
I developed a nice little routine: working out in the morning, followed by breakfast and then writing until the early afternoon. The rest of the day was mine to spend wandering around the night markets, going to the waterfall, visiting temples and just strolling around town. I’d drink wine on the patio of French bistros and read my book (Sherlock Holmes at the moment) or write some more. The town is quite touristy, but I have to admit that I like that from time to time. It offers the comforts of home, but is still foreign enough to keep things interesting.
It was lovely, but too much alone time can be a dangerous thing for me. Confined to nothing but myself and my thoughts, it’s easy to spiral. Thoughts heap one on top of the other and there is no one there to pull me out. Eventually I had to tell myself that it was time to pull it together because we’re better than this Margaret Ellen Henney! So I booked a ticket to Nong Khiaw for a change of scenery and some much needed outdoor time.
This turned out to be brilliant decision. Nong Khiaw was the most adorable little, two-street town that sits in a valley of mountains along a picturesque river. Anxious to get out and start doing, I tossed my things in my bungalow and hopped on a bicycle to peddle into town. I liked it immediately. It was a simple little village with not much to it except glorious views. And like good food, there’s no need for anything fancy when you start with great ingredients. Fussing with the town too much would have taken away from its charm. I passed a few restaurants and bars, and then a sign outside a little tour shop caught my eye.
Tomorrow: 1 day trek to waterfall through villages and river kayaking.
It was just the sort of thing I needed after being cooped up so I booked it for the following day. I had only one full day in town, so I had no choice but to hike to the town’s famous viewpoint that evening for sunset. I was a little wary about it since I’d heard the hike was a bit difficult and a torch (flashlight) was needed on the way back after sunset. I inquired with the French kid at the tour shop. He told me it takes about 1.5 hours to hike up. If you leave at 4:30 you can enjoy the sunset for half an hour and hike back down with no problem – it should still be light enough. Perfect.
So I peddled myself back to my little bungalow to change for the hike. Back at the base of the mountain I paid a small fee, grabbed a complimentary water from the man in the hut and a walking stick (just in case). It was a sunny, warm afternoon and as soon as I started up the mountain I was sweating. This didn’t stop until I reached the top. The climb was steep, strenuous and beautiful. It felt amazing to work at it – to sweat, feel my heart beating and my muscles flexing. I felt alive. I made the climb in just under an hour (sup) and was rewarded even further at the top of the mountain with a 360 degree view of the valleys, surrounding mountains and river running through the town. Worth it. So totally worth it.
Luckily I’d made some friends on the way up the mountain, which ended up being a real lifesaver. Contrary to what the young French guy said, nearly as soon as the sun dropped the sky was dark… and not just a little. The way up was difficult, but the way down was more so because falling down is alway worse than falling up. Inching down the steep, forested path in complete darkness would have been impossible. But doing it on this particular mountain would have been a death wish. The forest was littered with unexploded land mines and bombs dropped there but the good ole US of A back during the Vietnam War. One sign was posted as a warning at the bottom of the hill: “Don’t get off the path. Unexploded bombs still in this area. Dangerous. One of the most bombed areas in Laos.”
That was enough for me. I didn’t set one toe off the path and I vowed that if I had to pee well then by God people may just see me with my pants to my ankles right there in the middle of the walkway because getting my legs blown off by bombs dropped by my own country before I was even born is NOT the sort of adventure I’m looking for. But as I said, I was lucky to have made friends with a Swiss and a Canadian girl, both of whom were adequately prepared with head lamps.
The hike/kayaking trip the next day was beautiful (particularly the part back to the waterfall, which was a tropical paradise), but I have to say the most memorable part of the tour was my uber creepy tour guide who tried relentlessly to get in my pants. I’m also nearly certain he was at one time given a list of questions to NOT ask a woman, then promptly tore that list up, lit it on fire and pissed on its ashes. Here’s a sample of the questions he asked me:
- How old are you? (fairly standard but always a little odd)
- Do you have a husband? (slightly less standard, but not uncommon in Asia)
- How much do you weigh? (definitely not standard in any way)
- How much money did you make at your last job? (and this is when I started to laugh uncomfortably)
I can’t tell you how badly I wished someone was there. Not to protect me, but for sheer entertainment value. The only thing that rivaled the ridiculousness of his actions were my cringe-worthingly awkward reactions. At one point he asked me if I was cold, and even though I said “not really” he proceeded to rub my bare legs up and down between his hands. To which I said, “Ooooh, that’s ok. You don’t have to do that.” As if he were doing me a favor.
A more appropriate response would have been, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Or “Stop touching me. NOW.” But nope. Not this Midwesterner. God forbid I should insult my harasser while he sexually assaulted me. That would be rude! Things culminated in him hugging me (from behind) and kissing me (he tried to casually plant one on my cheek, but I craned my head away in resistance, just enough for him to kiss me on my neck – somewhat less better than a kiss on the cheek, so that’s on me).
Bear in mind this all happened within the first 20 minutes of a full day outing. Next up: a romantic boat tour down the Mekong! Thankfully, once down the river, we met up with two other people at the village who were joining us for the remainder of the day. But when we arrived back at the river after lunch at the waterfall for the THREE HOUR kayaking trip there were only two kayaks.
“Why are there only two kayaks?”
“Two in this one, two in this one.”
“But I’d like my own kayak…”
For the first 30 minutes he attempted to paddle us away from the other kayakers, while I paddled in the opposite direction, turning us in circles and leaving both of us feeling very frustrated (but for very different reasons).
“It’s ok – you just relax. I paddle,” he said.
“No, YOU just relax!”
I’d had enough and needed to blow off some steam. He put his oar down and I paddled our asses as hard and fast as I could down the Mekong and back to dry land.
Now, I cannot begin to tell you how completely uncommon this is in Asia. In terms of personal space, I’ve found Asians to be very respectful. The men are also not aggressive (or suggestive) in any way, shape or form. So I was understandably shocked when my guide started behaving considerably less Asian and much more… I don’t even know… a very foreign race of Asshole. It didn’t entirely ruin my day, but you know when you’re laying in bed and you think you hear or see something and start to come up with escape routes? That’s pretty much what my thoughts were dedicated to the rest of the day.
That evening I joined my friends from the day before and told them about my creepy experience. The next day I got a Facebook message from one of the girls who’d gone on a tour to the caves in the area. Once in the darkest part of the cave her guide – who didn’t quite have the vocabulary to express what he wanted – drew a picture of two stick figures having sex and said “kiss kiss” to imply his wishes. That is some next level shit right there people. Dude literally DREW HER A PICTURE. And here’s the kicker: at the end of the tour he asked her for a tip for taking her to the cave. If I wasn’t so disgusted by him I might actually be impressed by his nerve.
Here’s my amendment to this post: Nong Khiaw is AWESOME. I am so happy I went there and honestly felt that my short time there brought me back to life. So don’t let creepy guides deter you from visiting this great little town.