According to LonelyPlanet, Luang Prabang is arguably the most romantic city in southeast Asia, and I would also like to add, an outdoor lover's paradise. The sleepy little town is perfectly perched above the Mekong, sandwiched between another parallel-running tributary, boasting awe inspiring views on either side of town. And when the sun goes down the streets fill with locals selling handmade silk scarves, quilted pillows and silver goods galore at the night market. Outside of the locality are miles of windy jungle roads leading to countless waterfalls, hidden villages and caves.

The Kuang Si Falls are a favorite among tourists and locals alike and Rachel and I were determined to check them out. Most people hire a tuk-tuk, aka motorcycle converted three wheeler or sometimes truck with a large trailer that can hold anywhere from 3-12 people, to make the 40 mile round trip journey to the falls. We however, had settled on a much less conventional method of transportation; good old fashioned bicycles. When we inquired about the route to Kuang Si Falls, the bike rental man responded with a look somewhere between you've got to be joking and are you crazy?, but our minds were already made up and we were soon on our way.

At home, I ride my bike for strictly recreational purposes, like going to the grocery store or dropping a book off at the library, that is only when I'm feeling overly ambitious or don't want to pay for the gas to drive there. While I appreciate the sport, I am by no means a bicycle enthusiast, and the farthest I had ever ridden were 11 painless miles along the flat Ventura beach. I have a friend at home who is a professional bike racer and his daily schedule includes no less than a hundred mile ride up the California coast or through the Santa Monica Mountains. Forty miles didn't seem that far. It was somewhere between my proud piece of cake 11-miler and the pro's 100 square jaunt. A perfect starting point for an aspiring cyclist in the hills of Laos. Who knows, maybe this would be the day that I discover cycling as my true calling and dedicate my life to riding the jungles of southeast Asia Armstrong style. I'm always open to new possibilities.

The journey to the falls was no Ventura beach or walk in the park. In fact it was more of like a roller coaster track with boundless rolling hills and two massive thigh burning climbs at the very beginning and just before arriving at the waterfall. I am always amazed at my ability to tirelessly travel for miles with a bike on a flat plane, but throw a hill into the equation and the ride becomes exponentially more difficult than just ditching the bike and walking up the darn thing. Can anyone explain this phenomena? I was determined to summit the hills at any rate, and that's precisely what I did, even if it was at tortoise speed. Without a doubt, cycling was the best way to see all the villages along the way and appreciate the landscape. Locals would wave at us as we passed and scream, "sa-ba-deee" hello and a group of teenage boys even challenged us to a race zooming up a hill past us on their one speed beach cruisers. I won't go into how that ended, it was only my first race after all.

When we reached Kuang Si astounded at the height and sheer blueness of the falls, and riding the bike the there made it even more worthwhile (not to mention, our fellow slow boat travelers who we kept bumping into around town were very impressed at our endurance).

I returned to Luang Prabang with gelatinous legs, a remarkably sore bum and an immense appreciation for my cyclist friend. While I love the freedom of zipping around the countryside completly self-powered, I'm not sure I could ever surmount the eternal soreness and those killer hills. My career as a half-professional cyclist was short lived, but who knows, if I ever find myself in Laos again I'd be willing to take it for another spin.
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Me and Kuang Si Falls
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The Lao countryside
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Rachel sharing her photos with the locals
 
Seemed to be the big dilemma before my trip to Laos. I had heard horror stories about the bus, but if I chose the slow boat I would be diving in head first, committed to two days, and what if it turned out terrible? Luckily, my misfortunes with the slow boat happened right off, so the rest of the trip was relatively event-less.

The slow boat chugged down the river for two long days, drifting to a stop now and then just long enough for the captain to tighten a few bolts and for the passengers to observe the ever growing cloud of murky gray oil seeping from the engine. Every few kilometers we would dock to jam a few more locals on board.  Their arms heaping full of squirming chickens and bags of rice, it was always a wonder that they managed to fit and we did not capsize.

The arrival of the slow boat must be a monumental moment in the daily lives of river dwelling Laotians because it seemed that the whole town gathered to bade the venturers farewell. The children ran naked along the shore jumping from sand piles while the adults peered on, their faces plastered with scornful looks as they squinted at our boat full of whities.

By the end of the first day I had befriended an ample number of passengers; a couple from London, two guys from Bolivia and Colombia and several Canadians, but Rachel and I were still the only Americans on board. I'm beginning to learn that overseas travel isn't really in American blood.

When we docked for the first night Rachel an I were once again the last ones off the boat, the last ones to get our backpacks and consequently the last ones to get a hotel. This time it paid off though. We found a room in a lodge perched high on the side of a hill with a balcony overlooking the Mekong and barrage of parked slow boats, all for $10. It had been a long and stressful day with the man who swindled practically every passenger on the slow boat and our less than ideal seats jammed between locals and tourists feet on the floor. The beautiful balcony was a welcomed lounge.

The boat was scheduled to leave at 9:00 A.M. the next morning, but by 7:30 A.M. Rachel, followed by a line of tourists waited to snag the very best seats. We had learned our lesson and this time around would be much better than the first.

Day two was rather uneventful, but after the events of day one we were happy for a low key floating day. A glorious eight hours drifting down the Mekong, reading, playing Chinese checkers and of course ogling at the pristine rocks jetting from the river and quaint villages along the way. We made it to Luang Prabang exhausted and ready for some Laotian adventures. In similar suit, Rachel and I scouted out a hotel with a balcony, ditched our bags and spent the evening wandering through the town's night bazaar full of exotic foods and handmade goods. In the end, I give the slow boat four stars. A little rocky at points, but that's the stuff of good travel stories! And, it isn't every day you can float kilometers down a river admiring local Lao villages and their unique way of life. 
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Thoroughly enjoying my Mekong view balcony
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Our boat stream along the Mekong River
 
Thailand was an absolute dream and if it weren't for my expiring visa, I might have said there forever, or at least abandoned my remaining travel plans and stuck around as long as the bank account would permit. I had now  crossed paths with enough seasoned travelers that I was beginning to acquire a rather lengthy mental file on my next destination, Laos. It was notorious for lazy people, horrible roads and the mandatory activity for all backpackers; tubing down the Mekong River and partying in riverbank bars.

I would soon discover that traveling to Laos was no easy feat and definitely not for the weary, or weak stomached. Traveling in Thailand came with its fair share of ups and downs, and I quickly learned that the letters "VIP" in front of any form of transportation meant absolutely nothing, and "air conditioned" could be anything from what you may currently be conjuring up to riding in the back of a truck down the freeway with wind blowing my sweat away. Bottom line: you never know what you'll get.

In Thailand I had gotten shamed out of a bed on the overnight ferry (aka tourist slave ship) with the ticket collector pulling the "I don't speak enough English" card and looking at me wide-eyed pointing out the obvious; my ticket did not have a bed number, even though I had paid extra for one. I decided to take matters into my own hands, boarded the boat, picked an empty mattress and pretended to sleep. I was soon greeted by the most obese man possibly in all of Thailand lying down next to me on a mattress no larger than half the size of a twin bed. Sleep was scarce that night. Between the wide open windows, ship rocking wildly on large waves and trying not to get squished by fat man each time he rolled over, I may have been better off on the floor.

Now I was faced with another crucial decision concerning my travel means in southeast Asia. From where I would cross the border in Laos there was only one town to get to: Luang Prabang. I had three options. Option one: 24-36 hour bus ride along the infamously terrible Laos roads-sleep is tough and the locals usually get carsick and start puking mid journey-is what I was told. Option two: one day jetting down the Mekong river in a bone rattling and highly unsafe speed boat, or option three: two days floating down the Mekong on the slow boat, a favorite among backpackers. I opted for the latter.

On the bus to the Thai border I met three Irish girls and Rachel from Hawaii who would subsequently become my travel buddy through Laos. We stayed the night at a small hotel on the border. The owner was a vibrant Thai woman who appeared nothing less than crazy. She insisted on taking our passports along with $36 to the border that night to pick up advance Laos visas for us. With my knack for third world travel I have become pro at sniffing out scams and this one definitely smelled fishy. Through much protest she finally accepted our objection and we went to bed.

The next morning, a longtail boat shuttled us across the Mekong and we were in Laos! We were instructed to wait at the travel agency selling the slow boat tickets until the boat was ready. The owner was an old grandpa-like Lao man whose English was impressive. He asked for our passports so he could check the stamps and take them to the boat to get our tickets. The already buzzing tension exploded and the poor man was bombarded with questions and complaints from 20 travelers demanding why we had to hand over our passports, where we could get Laos currency (Kip) and when the boat would leave.

As he explained the whole process once more, he offered to take our remaining Thai Baht and exchange it for Kip on his way to get the boat tickets. The ATM nearby didn't always work and being it was Sunday, the currency exchange was closed, he explained. On top of all that he assured us that since we bought the tickets from him he would only charge 1% commission. We just had to put the money in our passport and he would finish the transaction.

There would be no ATM for the two days traveling on the boat and everyone was in a tizzy trying to find their leftover money from Thailand and debating whether to trust the old man. Rachel's voice came above all others, "Are you crazy?! You want me to give you my passport and all my money so you can run off to the exchange office with it? Why can't I just go myself to exchange my money? This sounds shady. I don't trust you," she fervently exclaimed.

Traveling in southeast Asia is a bit sketchier than traveling other places and you've got to take a lot of wagers; that's what makes it exhilarating. At home I would have never handed money over for someone to change, but I figured this was part of the normal protocol for traveling in Laos. Not to mention, I felt sorry for the man, getting yelled at by a group of Westerners. I patted him on the back, apologizing and assured Rachel that this innocent grandpa man would do nothing with her money. After all, he couldn't steal $300...and certainly not from 20 people, could he?

Let's back up for a minute. If I were to write a travel book, Ember's number one rule for travel would be never ever use the currency exchange. It is without a doubt the best way to get ripped off. Always use the ATM. Do your research, find a card that doesn't have a fee (and believe me, there are plenty out there) and withdrawal cash to your heart's content, commission-free and with the best going market rate.

We all piled into the bed of a pickup truck and were dropped off at a cafe where we would wait to board the boat. Just as the gate to the boat opened, a Lao twenty-something pulled up in a beater van and distributed our passports along with envelopes full of crisp Laos bills. Most people rushed onto the boat merely pocketing their goods, but Rachel and the Irish girls hung around counting their money. "Wait! I'm missing $58!" exclaimed Rachel. "I'm missing $40," yelled one of the Irish girls.

The boy stared at them dumbfounded. "Oh don't play this game with me, I know you understand every word I'm saying," declared Rachel, the anger grew with each word, a string of profanity. "I want my money back, NOW!"

"Boat leaving, get on boat!" was the only response, and suddenly we were left in an empty cafe, on the side of a dirt road somewhere in Laos. I was taken aback. He couldn't have. The cute little grandpa man who I felt so sorry for, I had sided with him and even patted him on the back! He couldn't have stolen tens of dollars from each person on the boat. A slide of confused emotions passed through my mind, but all I could think was Buddha surely wouldn't approve of this behavior and the old man must have a boatload of bad karma headed his way.

We peevishly boarded the boat only to discover another surprise in today's series of unfortunate events; there weren't enough seats for everyone. Silly me, who was I kidding to actually believe that there would be enough seats or beds for all the passengers on any form of transportation in Southeast Asia?

I quickly seized the first idle seat I spotted, while the others wandered to the back of the boat hoping for better luck. It looked like someone had gone on a spree dismantling backseats from mini vans, buses, you name it, and collectively pasted them into the hull of a boat arranging them whichever way they would fit. Some merely balanced with nothing behind, save the passenger's keenness to not lean back too far, and others wobbled on three legs or were perched against the boat railing for support. Every time the person in front of me moved, I was sure to retract my feet just as a precaution.

The back of the boat was even worse. It was a seat-less pit full of cargo, Laotians lying on the floor and a roaring engine spewing black diesel soot. We spent the entirety of that day's eight hour boat ride playing a messed up version of musical chairs-alternating between seat, floor and sitting on the railing of the boat. Two things were for sure: we were about to grow overwhelmingly close (literally and figuratively) with our fellow travelers and we were in for an unforgettable two days on the slow boat.
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A crowded slow boat
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Hanging off the edge of the slow boat. This was my seat for the last two hours of the ride.