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mekong boat

Tranquil and peaceful, and still Luang Prabang is not free from scams.

I’m not a newbie to SE Asia nor to the numerous scams just waiting for the unsuspecting touri. I’ve run across all of the well-known scams in Thailand, usually with advance knowledge and able to avoid becoming another statistic. And I frequently alert others to those scams, more so now that I write this blog. But even the most seasoned traveller can still easily fall victim to a scam. Especially when it is unexpected.

On my very first trip to Thailand with my friend Ann, we were presented with the opportunity of participating in the ‘The Grand Palace Is Closed Scam.’ But whoever came up with that one, which was around the time the first tourist to Thailand headed over to see the Grand Palace, failed to take Ann’s anal retentiveness into account. Outside the palace’s walls a local alerted us to the fact the Grand Palace was closed. That’s step one. Step two is the suggestion that for a low price he knows of an Official Tuk Tuk Driver Licensed By The Government, who will gladly take you to several other wats and local sights. Which end up being overpriced jewelry stores and rip-off tailors. We never got to step two because Ann checked off the Grand Palace on her schedule of things we were to do and immediately moved us off to the next place on her list. The promised wats and sights were not on her approved list. When Ann has a list, you stick to it.

On subsequent trips Thailand’s scam operators fared no better. Research pays off when you are visiting a foreign land. The internet is full of tales from those who went up against a scammer and lost. Not that Thailand is the only home to scammers in SE Asia. I ran across the fake gem scam at the Central Market in Phnom Penh and laughed that anyone could be so foolish as to believe those large chunks of glass were real rubies and emeralds. But it was fun listening to vendors’ claims. And I enjoyed trying to be scammed by a young over friendly woman in KL, who thought her come-on had placed me firmly in her cross-hairs not realizing that her particular scam just doesn’t work on gay men. She’s probably still trying to figure out what went wrong that night. So I’m aware that scams are out there.

luang prabang monk robes

Almost as good as a Monk Shot! saffron robes hung out to dry in Xieng Maen.

I easily avoid those I’ve heard about, and remain vigilant, on guard against those about which I’ve not been forewarned. But you can’t go around thinking every local you talk to is out to rip you off. If you do, you end up missing out on some good times, and on meeting some truly delightful people.

Scams were not, however, on my mind when my friend Noom and I headed to Luang Prabang in Laos. Everything I’d read about the World Heritage City was positive. Previous visitors sung its praises, having fell in love with the peaceful little burg and its warm and friendly people. I’d read up about the town on the internet before we left Bangkok. No one mentioned the opportunity of getting ripped off. There was no good advice about bad Laotians. But then that’s one of the problems with the internet. There were also no good warnings about bad advice. And of that, there was plenty.

Once you’ve done the Morning Market and the Night Market, seen a few dozen wats, and scaled the thousands of steps to the top of Mount Phousi, there’s not a lot to do in Luang Prabang. That’s one of its charms. But people on holiday like to fill their days accomplishing something, even though the whole point of a holiday is to take a break and rest. The people of Lao, like those living anywhere where touri flock, have come up with activities to keep visitors busy and happy. In Luang Prabang, that’s a half-day trip up-river to the Pak Ou Caves and the Kuang Si waterfalls. Every guide book and travel site tout the caves and waterfalls as a must-do when visiting Luang Prabang. Every tourist ends up going to the caves and waterfalls because that’s all there is to do in Luang Prabang. Both looked cool, and made it onto my list of things we’d do on our trip too. It was a short list.

boats along the Mekong

Private boats can be hired for touring along the Mekong.

The packaged tours that take you to the two sites leave early in the morning. I’m not a morning person to begin with and am even less so when on holiday. Throw in a Thai bar boy’s regular work/sleep schedule and anything before 10:00 A.M. is pushing it. The package tours also throw in stops at a whiskey making village and a textiles village, both billed as prime examples of local handcrafts, places you can visit to see villagers at work. And purchase a nice handcrafted souvenir. ‘Handcraft’ translates the same from Thai or Lao. It means fake, rip-of priced places built for touri and selling crap made in Vietnam at prices higher than you’d ever manage to get for the stuff back home. ‘Handcraft’ is just easier to say.

I figured there had to be a better way. There had to be an alternative to the package tours that allowed you to make your excursion at a more appropriate hour. And that would allow you to avoid wasting time at the handcraft villages. Google told me there was.

The well-intended bad advice from previous travellers said you could rent a private boat for the trip up to the caves and waterfall at half the price the package tours charged. Having not yet seen the town, reading that little gem of travel wisdom, I nodded sagely and made a note. Once in town, however, a smarter person may have considered that advice might not be all that accurate. Luang Prabang, at least its historic district along the Mekong, is small. Tiny in fact. And in a microcosm of capitalism smack dab in the middle of a communist country, no one dealing with touri is gonna accept half of what they know is the going price.

luang prabang buddhist umbrella

An umbrella shades a small altar perched atop a high wall overlooking the Mekong in Xieng Maen.

If you have read any of my previous posts about scams in SE Asia, then you know I’m a heartless bastard who laughs at those who fall prey to scammers. Scams rely on one thing more than anything else and that is greed. If you don’t want to be scammed on your vacation, you don’t have to know about potential scams, you just have to not be greedy. It’s more about your greed than their dishonesty when you fall for a scam. Great advice. Which I totally ignored in Luang Prabang.

After walking through the morning market one day we headed down to the Mekong, passing one of many package tour shops along the way. This one had their tours and prices listed on a sandwich board out front. Sweet. I now knew the current going rate for the cave/water fall trip. And since we were soon walking along the street fronting the river, it seemed a good time to find a boatman and haggle out a price for the trip. Finding one was easy. The calls of “Hello Sir!” came drifting over from the water side of the street as soon as we started walking along Manthatourath Road.

Having a local – or a semi-local because there really isn’t a lot different between Thais and Laotians – with you should work to your advantage when haggling with any type of vendor. When that local or semi-local is Noom, it’s not. Vendors all speak enough English that I can manage to cut a deal and get a good price without resorting to using the local lingo. But Noom likes to do his part, and does so in Thai. Or Lao. And then presents the deal he’s settled on in English to me. Which isn’t really about translating but rather about telling me how much it is going to cost me. That’d be cool, except his bartering skills suck.

novice monks afloat

Little monks, long boat.

Twenty baht is big bucks to Noom. In Bangkok, that will cover his dinner. If he can get a vendor to drop by that amount he’s a happy camper. And considers it a win. Half off the asking price is what I normally shoot for anywhere in SE Asia. So after he and the boatman had a go at it, we had to start all over. And I got the trip for half of what the package tour wanted. Plus we didn’t have to leave for another two hours.

“He want you pay now,” Noom told me after we’d agreed to the time and price. Right. I might not have been thinking scam, but I’m not an idiot either.

“Uh, no. We’ll pay him when we come back.”

Not that it was needed, but Noom translated what I’d said for the boatman. And then came back with his counter. “He want you pay half now,” he told me.

Sensing the answer was still going to be no, Noom followed up with more info. “For guarantee,” he said. “No guarantee, no booking.”

making paper

There was little evidence they handcrafted textiles at the Authentic Textile Village, but they did make paper by hand.

Que sera, sera. I smiled at the boat guy, shook my head and told Noom that was a chance we’d have to take. The bank is lined with boats and the wall along the upper landing lined with boatmen. I was fairly sure our guy would still be waiting when we returned. If not, potential rides were not exactly sparse. So we headed back to the hotel, had lunch, and then headed back to the river to find our boatman anxiously awaiting our return. Big surprise.

Now greed, or saving a few bucks to use a nicer term, was not my only motivation in hiring a private boat for the trip. Avoidance was equally of import. I had no desire to see a whiskey making village or a textiles making village. And I wanted as much time as we decided to take at the caves. They are filled with hundreds of Buddha statues and having braved packed tours in the past I knew the allotted time would be far too short for what we would want to spend there. A half day was not long enough for seeing both the caves and the waterfalls. I’d already decided we’d do the waterfalls separately the next day. And drive to them instead of cruising up the river.

But in Luang Prabang, it’s a package deal even when you are not on a package tour. There’s money to be made (on the off chance you might spend any at either village) and that’s typical of how SE Asian minds work. The trip includes the two village, therefore everyone must stop at both places. Regardless if you were joining a tour or making one of your own. Not going to the waterfall did not cause a problem. Our boatman was comfortable with dropping that from the tour. But I had better success bartering over the price than in trying to get him to not take us to the two villages. There seems to be a strict concatenation of stops related to touring the Pak Ou Caves that cannot be trifled with. I tried, it just didn’t work.

Mekong color

The Mekong’s mundane landscape is livened by once vividly decorated boats.

Rather than have us all pissed off, I sucked it up and agreed to visit the villages, figuring we could make short work of both. But I also made sure those stops would not encroach on the time we spent at the caves. The boat guy agreed and spelled out our itinerary. “One textile, one whiskey, Buddha Cave,” he sung out, pleased we had reached an agreement. And down a long flight of stairs to his boat we went.

The Mekong is a muddy expanse of water sluggishly moving along its route toward the ocean. Our boat barely managed to outpace its currents as we headed up river. The old wood boat, once painted a vivid blue but now faded dull by the tropic sun, had a low slung roof shading about a dozen low slung wood benches, neither built for the height or length of an American. Fortunately I don’t have the breadth of your average American, or the craft’s sea worthiness would have placed us in a precarious position. We chugged along with the boatman sitting cross-legged on the floor up front while we passed muddy banks and an occasional beached and bleached boat, all looking like they belonged to the same fleet as ours. Occasionally there were a long flight of stairs leading upward from the bank, more often there were nothing but scraggly trees and a muddy barren shoreline to watch as we slowly motored by.

Used to touri and aiming to please, every time I raised my camera for a shot, the driver would cut his engine. A nice gesture except we had a tail wind and every time we stopped the ancient outboard would belch a thick cloud of diesel fumes that would waft forward and engulf us. Taking a shot of our captain, I noticed he was self-conscious, and turned his head away from the lens. So I started using that, first pointing the camera at him and then quickly taking the shot I really wanted when he turned the other way.

on the mekong

El Capitan

Life along the Mekong was pretty mundane. Few boats were on the water, and even fewer people along the banks. The middle of the afternoon is not a good time for fishing, and with the sun at its zenith the only locals dumb enough to be out were kids who all seemed to be having a grand time exploring their little world. We passed a few young monks out on a uncovered boat, it’s length making them appear every smaller than they were. And one group of kids were busy digging for buried treasure in a short, loosely packed cliff of silt and mud. The few adults we passed were all wisely using their afternoon to catch up on their sleep. Noom decided to follow suit.

Twenty minutes into our trip we hit our first stop. The textile village. Not that you would know it. We beached in the mud and the boat guy led us up a steep, high bank of mud to the village some 75 yards above the Mekong to a smattering of authentic local huts, otherwise known as rickety wooden stores. Filled with imported trinkets. A few had textiles for sale. One even had a local woman – though she too may have been imported from Vietnam for all I know – running an old wooden loom and filling small spindles of yarn off of a larger bolt.

One Authentic Textile Village shop had a long open-weave piece in black with designs highlighted in plum and gold running through it that I kinda liked and thought, even if it hadn’t been made in Laos, would make a nice souvenir. The Authentic Textile Villager went into full salesman mode when she noticed me eyeing the tapestry. When I asked the price, the $150 she quoted wasn’t even worth trying to barter down from. At best it was worth $25. And even then I’d have been drastically overpaying. So photos, yes, purchases, no. And ten minutes later we were slip sliding our way down the muddy cliff to our boat once again.

mekong gas station

Mekong Oil: the riverside floating gas station.

The whiskey village was next and this one truly was a local village. And involved another long climb up a muddy cliff. Our boat guy had to ask around to find someone making whisky, or willing to fake it, and finally managed to rouse an old guy who fired up his kiln for no apparent reason and then poured a shot from a jug for us to try. Our boat guy shook his head no. Noom shook his head no. I should have shook my head no too, but it didn’t seem we were going to get to leave until someone tried the brew so I gave it a go. It had the kick of moonshine and the flavor of the effuse that ran down the hill into the river evidencing Laos is not big on cesspools or sewage treatment plants. If you ever get to visit a whiskey making village in Laos, embrace your rep as an Ugly American and just say no.

Back down the mud slide, back onto the boat and after a wide U-turn in the middle of the river we headed back south, the driver cutting the engine to allow the currents to propel the boat down stream. Finally, we were headed to the caves. Which were dead opposite of the bank from which we started our trip. And which, of course, required scaling up another cliff though this time concrete stairs were provided. At the top a cool poured cement expanse overlooked the water below, home to a small altar topped by a red umbrella. A group of old local people were playing music in front of a not too impressive wat and a gaggle of pre-teen girls waited for us to make it up the stairs, calling out a friendly greeting and then demanding 20,000 kip for the cave tour.

Noom’s a child at heart and made fast friends with the young girls, all of whom were suitable impressed with his muscles and thrilled to have a customer who spoke their language. We walked, forever, along a path next to the cliff, passing a few old decrepit huts and a small group of monk residences that were in much better shape than the surrounding buildings. Up another flight of stairs, though a short one this time, the oldest girl unlocked a padlock on a wrought iron gate fronting a set of wooden doors that lead down into the caves. And our cave tour began.

kids along the mekong

Local kids digging for buried treasure along the Mekong.

The tour inside the caves, which should be of no surprise, involved climbing down and later back up a lot of stone stairs. Inside it was dark, dank, and oppressively hot with little fresh air circulating within the system of caves. A string of light bulbs hanging haphazardly on a thin wire stretched down the length of stairs but they were dark. The switch, it turned out, was at the bottom of the main stairway. Further in they’d not even bothered to string lights.

Every few flights of stairs the girls would stop and shine a flashlight at a small Buddha cradled into a tiny niche in the cave’s walls. At one landing several flashlights went on to show off a small grotto where a few old stone pillars laid with yet another small Buddha nestled beside them. At another, a small chedi was the focal point. At each stop as someone’s flashlight clicked on, one of the girls would exclaim, “Buddha!” Noom ate it up, happy to be surrounded by his new posse of friends. I began to smell a rat.

Hundreds of Buddhas lining a well-lit somewhat open to the air cave was the picture I’d seen and the experience I was expecting. Half a dozen plastic Buddhas – each available at the market back in town for a pittance – spaced out along a dark passage was the reality. 1 + 1 was not equalling 2. But we did get to experience a long climb back up the stairs we’d just climbed down, a bonus the guide books had not promised.

luang prabang caves

The premier highlight of our cave tour.

Walking back to check out the wat, the eldest girl was busy trying to convince Noom to buy packages of rice to present to the monks during their early morning alms rounds back over on the Luang Prabang side of the river. That’s another activity to add to the small roster of things to do in Luang Prabang. If you are willing to get up at the break of day. I have to assume it is due to the paucity of things to do coupled with the copious amount of monks in Luang Prabang that have made this such a touri worthy ritual because monks out doing the alms thing in the morning is pretty standard fare everywhere in SE Asia. But it’s such a big thing in Luang Prabang they have posters all over town explaining ‘monk etiquette’ so that touri do their part without screwing with the monks’ karma.

Noom wanted to strike the deal, the girl said she’d bring the food to our hotel the next morning. I asked him if he was going to get up with the sun and got a crestfallen but definite shake of his head in reply. Noom, like all good Buddhists sees merit making as a necessary part of his day. But a 6 A.M wake-up call to do so was too much to ask. I slipped him 20,000 kip to tip the girls instead and the gang was happy.

We spent a few minutes checking the old wat out, it had a nicely decorated portico with Jataka murals fading on its walls, and then said a fond farewell to Noom’s new friends and motored back across the Mekong to our hotel.

Noom and his posse.

Noom and his posse.

Docking onto a partially submerged bamboo landing, our boatman put out his hand for payment with a somewhat worried and sheepish look. And I laughed. Scammed. I had to give him credit, our tour had certainly not been to the Pak Ou Caves, nor were either of our village stops at the places the package tours take you. I was almost disappointed I’d nixed the waterfall part of the trip ‘cuz I’d loved to see what he would have come up with to fill that part of the itinerary. But we’d cut a deal for “One textile, one whiskey, Buddha Cave” and that’s exactly what we’d received. I couldn’t even get mad at the guy, and he seemed to be relieved at that, managing a small chuckle himself.

By the way, I discovered the names of the wat and caves after the fact. The temple we visited is Wat Long Khun, a cool little wat with a gorgeous view back across the water to Luang Prabang. You can arrange a boat ride directly across the Mekong for a visit. And the cave system is the Tham Sakkarin Savvanakuha Cave. Even if you don’t go to the Pak Ou Caves, this one is a poor substitute and hardly worth the effort.

I don’t think Noom ever figured out we’d been scammed. And he probably now thinks I’ve got an obsession with caves because the next day we joined a package tour to get to the real one. Our fake tour cost less than twenty bucks, a trifle amount which probably had a lot to do with why I didn’t get pissed at being scammed. And $20 isn’t a lot of money to pay for a good reminder that when something seems to be too good to be true, it is.

Wat Long Khun

Wat Long Khun’s portico.