Sean King grew up in Hartley, Australia, and while it was (and still is) a beautiful place, it’s an isolated town on a giant isolated Island. It left him yearning for something a little different. So a few months ago he bought a backpack, picked a starting point, and started travelling, trying on the nomadic life for size. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Sean of The Aspiring Nomad as he travels through Southeast Asia.
This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Day One of The Aspiring Nomad: Monday
5:30AM: Jumped on the bus heading to the Laos border from where I was, Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam).
Having been ripped off at the border crossing I was left with absolutely no cash. Really hoped that the town our bus was headed for in Laos would have an ATM. (See also: Tips for Traveling With Money and Finding ATMs)
2PM: After the dustiest morning of my life we got dumped in a small village, the kind with no ATM and one guest house. No food since the night before. No water. No place to sleep. No money. Stuck in an unknown village. It was going to be interesting.
Having heard there may be a bus leaving soon I borrowed a few thousand kip for the river crossing and started running for the station 7km away. Passed three men skinning a dog next to a small fire on the side of the road, happily waving as I sweated past them.
Ended up missing the bus. However the station master did say I could catch the bus to the closest ATM in Oudomxay (2.5 hours away) and pay after the fact. One catch though: it didn’t come until 8:30am the next morning.
After a bit of hunting I came across a minibus driver who said he’d go there for 500 000 kip (about $62). Not in this lifetime. Just as I started making a bed out of the bench under the bus shelter, he came back with more than a full load, saying he could squeeze me in for 100 000 kip. Still a rip off for a trip that costs 30 000 on the bus, but I figured it’s only $12, so no big loss.
8PM: Finally arrived in Oudomxay, exhausted. Three broken ATM’s later I managed to eventually pay him. Having taken out all the cash possible I grabbed the cheapest room I could and got a much needed bite to eat. And a few bottles of water.
Day Two: Tuesday
6:30AM: Woke up refreshed and ready to go again. After wandering around town, grabbing some breakfast, and picking up a Laos sim card I managed to find an internet café to catch up with the blog and emails. Which meant using dial up again for the first time in five years. Freaked me out.
11AM: Jumped on bus heading to Luang Nam Tha.
11:45AM: Started heading to Luang Nam Tha. Stopped again an hour later in road works. You really have to learn to let go and take it as it comes in Asia; nothing goes according to plan and no one’s in a rush. It’s actually a nice change.
5PM: Got to Luang Nam Tha and played a SE Asian favourite: ‘how many can we fit in the Tuk Tuk’ to get into the new town.
Being exhausted from a day of doing nothing, I splurged on a nice room (60 000 kip) before heading out to start eco-tour hopping. Found a few options for treks, but decided that I’d just show up in the morning and see what was available.
7PM: Went for a wander through the night markets. “Ganja? Smokey smokey?” the frail old handicrafts ladies kept whispering to me. Ended up grabbing something from just about every stall and enjoyed a cheap feast.
9PM: Got back to the room to sort out a few things back home. Finally went to sleep at midnight.
Day Three: Wednesday
6:30AM: Woke up not really feeling ready for a multi day trek, but headed down to a few of the agencies nonetheless. None of the treks with people already signed up really interested me, and doing one alone was ludicrously expensive. Seeing as I wasn’t feeling up to it anyway, I wandered down to a street stall and got some breakfast.
After a visit to the post office I passed a sign, “Hire you motorbike cheap,” it read. Sounded like a good idea. Grabbed the cheapest bike they had and started riding north. I figured that if nothing else there were plenty of things to see on the side of most roads in Laos.
11:30AM: Arrived in the small town of Muang Sing on the Chinese border after a dangerously fun ride, with not a single stretch of straight road joining the sweeping curves of (thankfully) tarred road.
A quick stroll down the main street was all the exploring the somewhat disappointing town warranted. Settling for a guesthouse restaurant I quickly got through my hygienically suspect sticky rice and chicken before jumping on the bike and heading back to Luang Nam Tha, hoping my lunch would stay where it was.
After about an hour on the road a waterfall walk stuck out as something interesting to see. It was great to just sit and enjoy the peace and quiet for a while, there were even hordes of butterflies to suit.
After another half hour of riding I started to feel the consequences of my stingy rental’s rock hard suspension. Decided I should probably stop for a short break. Scrambling down some rocks I found a small river to stretch out next to in the Nam Tha NPA.
5:30PM: Finally got back to Luang Nam Tha after accidentally falling asleep next to said river, and a short stopover in a small village to take some photos for the blog. I was feeling pretty sore, cheap Chinese scooters are certainly not made for long haul journeys.
I soon found my way to a cool bar stretch out my limbs and have a few cool drinks. Got chatting to a journalist who writes for the Daily Telegraph and New York Times, currently doing a book on the hill tribes I was planning to visit on my trek.
8PM: After another cheap and tasty meal from the night markets I started eco-tour hopping for the second time. Luckily came across a trek with only one space left, making it very cheap. While it was only two days long it was by one of the more reputable companies of the area, with a very cool sounding overnight homestay in one of the villages the journalist mentioned. I was sold.
Day Four: Thursday
7:30AM: Headed down for a quick bite to eat before meeting the rest of my trekking group. There were ten in total, including me and two guides. We all jumped in a minibus (with eight seats) and took off.
After a short stopover at the local market to pick up some supplies, and a change of minibus after our driver managed to snap the key (how is anyone’s guess), we arrived at a small village. “Down to the top!” Our guide exclaimed. The walking began.
1PM: Stopped for lunch. It was a very cool meal: sticky rice, fire-barbecued fish, chilli soup, all served on banana leaf. With nothing but bamboo, matches, and a knife used to prepare it. Absolutely nothing was wasted, even the fish guts were spiced and used as stuffing.
4PM: My jaw dropped as the trees gave way to Nam Koi village. Home of the Lahue minority, the fifteen small huts housed a transient population of one hundred and ten people on a dusty plateau, on the top of a mountain in the middle of the jungle. Bar a plastic bucket here and some clothes there, the people lived as they have done for what I imagine to be hundreds (thousands?) of years.
8PM: After an exhausting afternoon playing drink-bottle football with some of the kids in the village, and another delicious meal for dinner, we sat under our mosquito nets with a bottle of local whisky and a deck of cards.
Day Five: Friday
6:30AM: Woke up to the smell of freshly cooked breakfast and Lao coffee. And the never-ending sound of roosters. We soon waved goodbye to everyone at the village and started back down the mountain. The bamboo leaves made it ridiculously slippery, nearly turning into jungle skiing a few times.
12PM: Stopped for lunch in a small abandoned hut at the base of the mountain. I set to carving myself a fancy bamboo walking stick while the food was being prepared. After we finished debating what kind of meat we ate (narrowed it down to buffalo or dog), the trekking started again.
4PM: Got back to another village, where the minibus was waiting. It was a fantastic trek. We learned about medicinal plants, birds that sing ‘beer lao’, and the lives of the Lahue, amongst other things.
6PM: Met up with some of the others I met on the trek for dinner and a few drinks. All really cool people.
Day Six: Saturday
7:30AM: Rolled out of bed and into a tuk-tuk heading to the bus station, hoping I’d find a bus heading to Huay Xai. Grabbed an omelette baguette (the invention of sliced bread hasn’t quite made it to SE Asia yet) while I waited for the 9am bus.
12PM: Got to Huay Xai only to find out the slow boat to Luang Prabang, my next stop, left at 11:30am. After finding a room and freshening up a bit, I grabbed my laptop and headed down to one of the cafe’s on the main street. Soon found out café wifi is still a distant dream.
After a refreshing fruit shake I started ambling back to the room to dump my stuff off, but got sidetracked by an internet café. Got in touch with a few of the people I met in Luang Nam Tha and organised a meet up in Luang Prabang. Also uploaded my backlog of articles and photos to the blog.
4:30PM: After wandering around the small town for a while, I found an active monastery on top of a hill. Got chatting to a few of the monks that were around my age. Not surprisingly they were incredibly nice, and very laid back.
Having taken in the sunset at the monastery long enough, I stumbled across an absolutely incredible bar/restaurant/volunteer HQ called Daauw House, nestled in behind town on a little dirt path. As soon as I arrived I was invited to share dinner with the family and have a few drinks with the founders. After a few more people turned up it was time to cook up the main courses and have a chat with everyone there while enjoying our free ginger whisky.
12AM: Finally left the Daauw House, seriously contemplating going back after Luang Prabang to volunteer for a week. Just such cool people.
Day Seven: Sunday
8:30AM: After a good breakfast and a stop at a few street stalls to stock up for the seven-hour boat ride ahead, I started heading down to the port for my 11am boarding. Going along the Mekong is still a great way to travel, even if it has become quite touristy. With your legs hanging over the side, looking out at nothing but mile after mile of undisturbed jungle it’s easy to think you’re the only person in the country.
6:30PM: Arrived in Pakbeng island, our overnight stopover. You think Amsterdam is the marijuana capital of the world? Wrong. It’s got to be Pakbeng. I got my first proposition to buy when I was still seated in the boat, then the catchphrase became:
After finding a nice room I was drawn by the sounds of Bob Marley to a groovy family owned restaurant for dinner. Being soon roped into offloading my music collection to one of the brothers that owned the restaurant, and therefore letting my dinner go cold, I was offered a free shot of his home-brewed rice whisky as compensation. Couldn’t complain.
8:30PM: Headed to the only bar in town to catch up with a few of the guys I met on the slow boat for a few drinks. Collapsed into my comfy (a nice change) bed and at midnight, ready for another day on the Mekong tomorrow. Next stop Luang Prabang.
Sean is working his way through SE Asia, continuing down through Laos until he reaches Cambodia. Then he’ll continue on to Thailand and Myanmar before heading off to India later in the year. Check out his adventures at The Aspiring Nomad.