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In the summer of 2009, Nicolas Rapp decided to take a break from his Art Director job at The Associated Press to attempt a one-year overland travel around the world in a 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser. He was back in New York in February 2011 after traveling 15 months and 37,000 miles.

Visited countries


September 2023



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  • Southward along the Mekong River

    Posted on December 13th, 2010 Nicolas No comments
    Meat for sale at the Phongsaly market.

    Meat for sale at the Phongsaly market.

    There’s not much to do in Phongsaly. The adventure you find more on the route to the town than in the town itself. Two restaurants, three guest houses and you saw everything. There’s a nice little market where I am able to buy vegetables which allow us to escape from the omnipresent fried rice.

    Vegetables in the market, exactly what I need to get a more balanced diet.

    Vegetables in the market, exactly what I need to get a more balanced diet.

    At the image of the population of the town, most shops, restaurants and hostels are owned by Chinese which are brutal traders. You can’t win against them and they never accept to lower their ridiculous prices. It is not Thailand here, and you better make sure of the cost before you order something.

    Dry goods at the market, including noodles.

    Dry goods at the market, including noodles.

    Four hundreds steps to go up to see a “stupa” on an elevation dominating the dwellings and you did most of what’s possible to do in town. Or almost everything. The big everyday event is the arrival of the only bus coming to good old Phongsaly. You can go watch people tired by the nine hours trip falling out the bus.
    Among them, there’s always one of two tourists. Everybody eventually meets in the only restaurant open after 8 p.m. and exchange travelers tips. One recent day, we hear from one of them about a very old tea plantation up in the mountains. To be exact it is supposed to be the oldest in the world. Soon enough few people are interested to join Philip and me to explore this new destination.

    There’s space for everyone in the Great Tea Expedition.

    There’s space for everyone in the Great Tea Expedition.

    The following day, we drive to the tea plantation. As in Camobodia, most tourists here are french, and on this day they pile-up on the passenger seat of my truck. The road shakes us up a bit, but less than an hour after we arrive on the site.

    On the way to the tea plantation.

    On the way to the tea plantation.

    We spent a bit of time speaking with a strange hunter on the way. He is planting traps for rats among the trees. He showed us how the system is working. Only after few minutes back on the road I realize this guy is actually eating the rats he catches.

    Catching rats – and frying them…

    Catching rats – and frying them…

    I completely forgot fried rats were eaten in many Asia countries like China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. I gave our hunter a bag of fried pork skin I bought by mistake thinking it was potato chips. It will make a change in his diet.

    Arriving at the tea plantation. The old guy will guide us.

    Arriving at the tea plantation. The old man will guide us.

    At the tea plantation, an old man shows us around and invites us to try some tea. Most of the tea trees are very old there, some as much as 400 years. In most plantations, the tree-tops are being cut so leaves can be picked by people on foot. In Phongsaly, the trees are left to grow, and villagers have to climb to collect the leaves.

    Picking tea leaves on the old tree.

    Picking tea leaves on the old tree.

    Fresh leaves.

    Fresh leaves.

    After fierce negotiations we are able to buy few shopping bags of dried leaves for US$2. We spend some time in the village with the kids and we can see the inhabitants in their daily work tasks. but soon we need to leave. The tourism office of Phongsaly learned we are up there and they are complaining we didn’t use a guide to visit the village. We promise next time we will…

    Nobody is too young to work.

    Nobody is too young to work.

    After two very cold nights in the city, we decide it is time to go back down the mountain. We stayed in a hotel in town because it is too cold to camp (Viphaphone hotel, US$10 for a double room, not recommended they will rip you off! Try Sensaly guesthouse instead). Temperatures come down around 40 F (5 deg. Celsius) and even in our room it is freezing. Anyway, now is time for a last struggle on the dirt road to go down the mountains. We stop for the night in Boun Tai and then in Oudom Xai.

    Backtracking on the dirt road and going back to Oudom Xai.

    Backtracking on the dirt road and going back to Oudom Xai.

    In the morning, on a mountain road south of Oudom Xai, Philip and I split. He is going to the eastern part of the country and I will keep going south. Maybe we will catch up later.

    Good bye and good luck to Philip.

    Good bye and good luck to Philip.

    Around noon I meet again the Mekong River and follow it toward the south. I arrive in Luang Prabang in the afternoon. By then I feel pretty weak and I am coming down with a cold. It is a nice last present from the cold mountains. Time for me to find a guesthouse and take some rest, a plan I execute promptly.

    Following the Mekong River once again to Luang Prabang.

    Following the Mekong River once again to Luang Prabang.

    The city, located at the convergence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River used to be the royal capital of Laos before the communist takeover in the 70’s. The city is famous for its many temples as well as for its French influenced architecture in more modern buildings. It is a pleasant and touristy place, the Laos equivalent of Chiang Mai in Thailand.

    Pedestrian bridge in Luang Prabang across the Nam Khan River.

    Pedestrian bridge in Luang Prabang across the Nam Khan River.

    I decide to stay there for a bit, until my cold is gone (Oudomphong, US$7.5, recommended). It is nice to stroll along the streets and be able to get good French-influenced food like croissants or bread. The night market is the ideal place to get diner and few bars offer me a chance to try to boost my health with rum and lime juice.

    Shop in one Luang Prabang streets.

    Shop in one Luang Prabang streets.

    There are not many tourist spots in Laos, so soon enough I meet again most of the people I saw in Phongsaly. Good reason for celebration but quiet celebration: bars in the town close before midnight. Still a progress compared to up in the mountain where everything was shut down by 9 p.m.

    Street corner. Luang Prabang has a European feel.

    Street corner. Luang Prabang has a European feel.

    Few days later, it is time to go south. I will now go to Vientiane and continue my route back to Bangkok. I already began to get quotes from shipping companies to send my ride back to L.A. I will also need to get a Chinese visa as I still hope to be able to get from Hong-Kong to Beijing by train.

    Sunset on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

    Sunset on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

    From China I should be able to get a boat to South Korea, and from there hop in another ship to Japan. More details in upcoming posts…

    Old Wat, Luang Prabang.

    Old Wat, Luang Prabang.

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20 Responses to “Southward along the Mekong River”

  1. Charlie A (Santa Clara, Ca.)

    Thanks for the TWE fix. It felt like a month since your last post.

  2. Hey buddy.
    Almost home. well USA and beyond. Sooner than last expected eh? Be safe. Happy New Year.

    Surfer Dude…nyc

  3. Nice Rice Field Wow old in the world pretty cool! So I guess the back was filled with stuff so every one had to sit in front. The rat eater Good you gave him grub. Sorry to see this come to a end soon.

  4. Such wonderful information and equally fabulous pictures. I enjoyed every bit and hope by now you are feeling 100%. Less than 2 weeks until Christmas – wonder what you will be doing?!?

  5. Nice progress!!! Fried rats, mmmmmm!

  6. Glad to hear from you; you continue to amaze all of us by your great pictures. What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned/seen since you’ve been in Laos/Vietnam? it’s such an interesting part of the world – maybe alittle misunderstood. just as you have with other regions of the world, set us straight.

    are your future travel plans working out as you planned earlier?

    take care, friend.

  7. Donna in Fort Lauderdale

    Our weather here tonight is like your mountain weather was this week.. going to be 32 here tonight, we just don’t get this kind of cold. I don’t know if you keep up with the news as your travel and all the freezing cold weather across our great country here in the USA. Like the dome collapsing from all the snow on the MN Vikings football stadium, and actually having to push the game from Sunday to tonight (unheard of!! ). But our news here doesn’t compare to how I look forward to your news updates, to think you’re actually looking now into shipping your truck back and your trip is getting ready to end. What will we all do?? Follow you daily around New York is what I’m thinking. I hope your cold is alot better by now and the rest of your trip goes smooth and plans fall into place. A scary situation going on in South and North Korea, so not too crazy about you going there right now, but I guess it wouldn’t really have any affect on you. I hope you get to go everywhere you’re planning because I’ve truly been looking forward to the pictures, always looking for more of them… can’t wait FOR THAT BOOK~~!!!
    Hang in ….. God bless and be safe… with a hug from home…. !

  8. I’m curious to see where you end up to ring in 2011. 🙂 I rang 2009 in Bangkok. Spending NYE abroad was a delight!

  9. Nick, are those hot peppers sitting on the curb in the photo where Philip and you parted ways?

    If you’re planning to travel from Hong Kong to Beijing by train, there’s several options…
    Cheap way: take the Hong Kong only MTR East Rail train from anywhere in Kowloon all the way to the border at Lo Wu. Then walk across the bridge into mainland China like most locals do. It is an experience not to be missed as there’s always a human wave across the bridge. As soon as you’ve crossed into the Shenzhen (the border city with Hong Kong), you can take the high speed train to Beijing via Guangzhou, or you can take the normal train to Guangzhou if you plan to stop there for a couple of days of sightseeing (you can board another train in Guangzhou bound for Beijing later.. a choice of normal or high speed), You do not want to take the trains go to the Lok Ma Chau border crossing, there are no direct connecting trains to Guangzhou.

    Expensive way: take the direct “intercity” train from Hong Kong to Beijing. Service is only available at the Hung Hom station in southern Kowloon. Journey takes about 23.5 hours. Hong Kong does not have high speed rail yet, so the direct way is also the slow way.

    Guangzhou is a city to visit as there are still many colonial era buildings still in existence and you can also experience some of China’s finest cuisines (not the fancy kind, but the cheap stuff mere mortals eat).

    If you really wish to see China, it is best to not visit just Beijing alone but the other cities along the way. But if you don’t have time, then Beijing is a must see.

    So are you planning on shipping the truck to South Korea then to Japan? If you’re going through Japan, let me know. I will be starting a new job in Tokyo in a couple of months and will be really happy to meet you there.

    Email me if you need any travel advice for Japan or Hong Kong.

    Take care!

  10. Hey Nick
    My class and I fallow your blog in school, we go to phoenix middle school in ohio and i could not help but notice that on your route home you go around Ohio. I was just curious could you make a little detour to come to columbus? But if you cant i understand and if you could that would be great thanks for bloging i enjoy reading it every day.

    Good Luck,
    Jacob R

  11. Hi Nick,

    Thank you for such great photography and sharing your experience with the world! I was curious as to wether or not you’ll have a photography exhibit of your expedition once you return to the U.S.

    Happy New Year.

  12. Hi Nick,

    You should strongly consider once you get to the U.S. coming to Worthington, Ohio (right in the middle of the state). Here at Phoenix Middle School we have watched you closely and have really enjoyed all your posts. Please cosider it and have happy holidays.

  13. Hey Nick,

    You really need to come to Worthington, Ohio. Us kids at Phoenix Middle School are hoping you’ll be able to come near us. It would be great if you could! We have been reading all your posts and I hope you have a great time during the holidays.

  14. Thank you, Nick!
    Thank you for the awesome pix; thank you so so much for sharing!

    Just….. Thank you!


  15. Photos of the Mekong River are breathtaking! Thanks for sharing them. Hope you can find a place to rest and enjoy Christmas. Saying a prayer for you right now.

  16. Nick, I enjoyed your Pictures, and comments. I was in vietnam, ya eating lot of fried rats, they were really good, have a safe trip back to the USA<

  17. Just a little hello from Paris under the snow. After holidays, now its time to return work.A lot of think to friend on the road across the world. Good luck for your trip back Usa.

  18. Hi Nick,
    After reading all the posts from Phoenix Middle School asking you to stop by on your way back, it occurs to me that you might want to contact the different classes who are following you around the world and plan a speaking tour after your trip is finished. I’ll bet you would enjoy it as much as they would! Can’t wait to see if you make it to China and what your experience will be there. Travel safe.

  19. Juan in a Million


    I was wondering if Phillip was doing a similar trip as you were, and if he was only using a motorcycle for transportation. Thanks.

  20. I traveled on the Mekong River by myself about 8 years ago. I could only think about all of our brave young American soldiers who were there and how frightening and dangerous it was for them. With the war over, I found the Vietnamese people wonderful and very welcoming. I love following your trip. Thank you for sharing it.