Luang Prabang is a really nice city. The streets are clean, pleasant to walk along and are lined with nice buildings. There’s heaps of good restaurants and pubs. The pace is slow and relaxing and it just feels really hospitable. Much like the rest of Laos really. We thought this is somewhere we could stay for a while and enjoy just hanging out in the city. Only problem with Luang Prabang is, by Laos standards, it’s a bit expensive. Still cheap by world standards but prices do reflect being one of the most renowned tourist destinations in Laos.
We stayed in Luang Prabang for the few days over Laos new year, also called the water festival. So apart from walking around and going out for drinks and food, we got wet and got other people wet. Also we got flour and paint thrown at us. Good times. I’m sure there’s other stuff to do in and around Luang Prabang but we were too busy playing with water. The city’s water supply was so overwhelmed that water service was lost for a few hours in the evening. This was our last destination before moving onto Vietnam, flying from Luang Prabang to Hanoi.
The road from Vang Vieng to Luang Namtha is long, windy, full of potholes and very slow going. So we stayed overnight in Luang Prabang even though we’d be returning there a few days later. It gave as an opportunity to organize accommodation for Laos new year which we’d be in Luang Prabang for. After our overnight stop we headed straight to the bus station early in the morning to make sure we didn’t miss the morning bus. We bought our tickets at about 8am I think, for the 10:30 bus. We walked down the road to a restaurant to burn a couple of hours then rocked up at the bus station at 10am looking for our bus, only to be advised that the bus was full and had already left without us. Bugger! Departure times aren’t really relevant in Laos. They keep selling tickets until all the seats are occupied, then the bus goes. We got our money back and booked the overnight bus, spending half a day bumming around in Luang Prabang.
The overnight bus was rough and uncomfortable. The seats were too small. Our knees touched the seat in front and we got practically no sleep. We rocked up in Luang Namtha at around 4am and the first thing we noticed was that it was pleasantly cool. Actually quite cold with the wind chill riding in the back of a tuk tuk from the bus station to town. Then we spent an hour or two wandering around trying to find accommodation that we could check into so early in the morning. We really needed a nap, we were fluffed. Nearly everywhere was still closed. We ended up finding a pretty dodgy place on the back streets. Good enough for a couple of hours power nap but not really somewhere we wanted to stay. We got some sleep, paid for a full night’s accommodation (a few dollars) then went looking for somewhere better.
We really like Luang Namtha. It’s quite far north, near China, and elevated, which provides some relief from the sweltering conditions that southern Laos experiences at this time of the year. The market had heaps of good cheap food. Stuff is around half the price of what it is in Luang Prabang. The people were super friendly. Even the old hill tribe lady trying to sell us ganga and opium was pleasant to deal with. Sharni got a rip in her pants which she got stitched up at the markets. They charged the equivalent of about 25 cents for the repair.
We did a one night / two day trekking trip through some hill villages and jungle. At the first village we arrived at we saw some children grooming their pets – picking fleas out of the fur. The trek guide did the old making cups out of bamboo trick. We passed through some beautiful jungle scenery and views of villages with their rice fields or other crop of choice. In the photo below it’s rubber saplings. At the village where we stayed overnight, Sharni bought the entire shop’s stock of lollies for a few dollars and gave them out to the very friendly children. At dinner the village elders gave us some wrist bands and wished us good luck for the new year. Then some youngsters did a traditional dance, we had some Beerlao and hit the hay.
We hired a scooter in Luang Namtha and rode to Muang Sing – a small town right near the China border. The ride was excellent – sweeping corners through villages and the Laos highlands. On the way we got a flat tyre. We stopped off at a village to get it fixed at a small shop on the side of the road. It needed a new tube. Being the back wheel, it’s a bit more labour intensive than the front so was quite expensive. The cost of supplying and installing the new tube was about AUD$4 and included a free rear brake adjustment. We had lunch at Muang Sing, visited the markets, then headed back to Luang Namtha, checking out a small water falls on the way. When we got back to Luang Namtha we got our first taste of Laos new year. New year in Laos (as well as Thailand, Burma and Cambodia) involves everyone throwing water at eachother and getting wet. New year was still a few days away but we got some early action when some kids threw water at us as we rode by on the scooter.
The bus back to Luang Prabang was made interesting by more early Laos new year celebrations. Kids would shoot / throw water at the bus. Sometimes the bus driver would slow down whilst his mate chucked water out the window at some people on the side of the road. Sharni opened the bus window to have a look and quickly became a target.
We left Vientiane and headed for Vang Vieng – a town renowned for it’s right-of-passage tubing down the Nam Song River. The tubing route was once lined with many bars, platforms, zip lines and rope swings, but after many fatalities most of this has been demolished with only a couple of bars remaining. So the tubing isn’t what it used to be. For our demographic I think it’s now better. Not so many drunk teenagers, more relaxing and enjoying of the scenery as you float down the river. A few Beerlaos are of course still part of the deal. The water level was a bit low in some places as it was the middle of the dry season. Often we had to tuck our bums up to avoid copping a rock in the ass.
We went hot air ballooning – the first time either of us have done it and it was tremendous. Silently floating above Vang Vieng with the view to the karst hills was spectacular. The people operating the hot air balloon could do a bit better. There’s no communication, no safety briefing, no explanation about hot air ballooning or the actual flight we were about to undertake. They just usher you into the basket and off you go. The excitement of almost skimming the tops of trees and powerlines made up for the ordinary service from the tour operators. Not sure if it was the expert skills of the balloon pilot that allowed us to descend into fields between trees and powerlines or whether it was an accident waiting to happen. Exciting nonetheless.
We hired a scooter and rode out to Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham Cave. The walk up to the cave is steep and difficult in the heat but there’s relief with a swim in the lagoon. After a swim we hopped back on the scooter and rode around the countryside trying to find some famous mountains and walking trails. We got lost and ended up just riding around for a few hours, but it was still fun to ride through villages and explore the region.
The evenings we spent chilling out in a few of the many bars and restaurants in Vang Vieng. Many play Family Guy and Friends episodes continuously. It’s quite a tradition in Vang Vieng. On our last night we went out for dinner with some friends we had met in the previous days. Next on the schedule was to head north, check out the Laos northern highlands and hopefully escape the extreme heat and humidity of southern Laos during the build up to the wet.
We can see a pattern forming after traveling Laos for a while. Compared to many other places in South East Asia, it’s clean, laid back, uncrowded and with fewer young drunken tourists away from their parents for the first time. The ripping off of tourists occurs to a much lesser extent than many other countries in South East Asia. You can walk through markets and shops and no one will hassle you. When asking for a price, often straight away you’ll get the local price without any bartering. The sidewalks are clean and clear of obstacles. The streets and markets are really a pleasure to walk around. Laos is shaping up to be our favourite country we’ve visited.
Vientiane may not be the most exciting city for tourists but it’s a city we thought we could actually live in. It’s clean, attractive and a really nice place to relax, walk around and get some good food and drink. Mostly that is what we did in our few days stay. Patuxai, the Laos version of the Arc de Triomphe, is a popular attraction in the city. It was built with concrete donated by USA intended for the construction of a new airport. We also went to the Lao National Museum which has lots of information on the country’s struggle to free the itself from foreign occupiers and imperialist forces.
We hired some pushbikes and rode around the city, to Pha That Luang temple and to the Vietnamese embassy to organize our visas. The embassy was closed when we arrived and ended up opening a few hours late, seemingly for no reason other than to have a sleep in. We also rode to the Chinese embassy with the idea of heading north into China before looping back down into Vietnam. No luck – the requirements are too strict regarding pre-organized accommodation and entry / exit transport. We gave up on the China idea – will have to wait until next time.
From Pakse we headed to Tha Khek to do “The Loop”. This is a 400km road trip through rural areas and villages in southern Laos, undertaken on a hired motorbike. The Loop starts and ends in the town of Tha Khek. It’s unguided – rent a motorbike and take as long as you want, staying at guesthouses in villages along the way. It took us 4 days / 3 nights to complete the ride.
The Loop was great fun. We saw some nice scenery, caves, rivers and lakes. It was super cheap, with the motorbike hire being AUD$8 a day, fuel cost a few dollars a day, accommodation maybe $6 a day and food another few dollars a day. The people and children from the villages were so friendly and nice. One village was having some sort of festival where they waved us down and gave us free BeerLao and stuck some decorative pins to our clothes. Another village we played bocce with a local and a couple of other tourists, with the losing team having to buy the winning team a bottle of Beerlao. Parts of the road did not exist and involved negotiating some pretty rough dirt sections, resulting in a severe ass pounding. These cheap, small motorbikes don’t have much suspension and aren’t really made for offroading. Part of the loop takes you to Konglor Cave – a famous cave with a river running through it for 7.5km. Also we passed by a hydroelectric power station with a free visitor information center. It was very interesting, especially for Joe.
Tha Khek itself doesn’t have a lot going on, but still has good cheap food and a few watering holes on the Mekong where you can watch the sun go down with views across to Thailand. There’s plenty of dodgy motorbikes for hire. I had never ridden a proper motorbike before Tha Khek. Only fully automatic scooters. The very first time I’d ever ridden a motorbike was a test drive on a bike we were thinking of hiring to do the loop with. Literally a few meters away from the hire shop, with only a few seconds of experience in riding a manual transmission motorbike, the throttle got stuck on full. Maximum power. What an exciting few seconds it was piloting an out of control accelerating bike through Tha Khek traffic. My first thought was open the clutch. No go – these bikes are semi-automatic. South East Asians need bikes that can be operated one handed so they can hold an umbrella or a child or talk on their phone with the other hand. The clutch is slaved off the gear shifter. Next I tried the brakes, only to lock up the front wheel and nearly come off the bike. Fortunately I eased off the brakes and managed to get the bike into neutral with the engine screaming at maximum rpm. I turned the engine off and pushed it back to the hire shop. We went to a different shop. At the shop we ended up hiring from, we still went through about 4 motorbikes before finding one with all the lights operating and brakes working effectively.
Pakse is a town in southern Laos which serves mostly as a gateway hub for travelers. There’s some temples, waterfalls and small villages to explore in the region. We saw none of that. Got holed up in the hotel again, potently infected with a stomach bug, confined to our hotel and feeling very weak. However we blasted our way to good health over the course of a few days.
We wanted some easy to eat, bed friendly food so got some pizzas from a shop across the road. They were terrible – coated with a sickly sweet sugar syrup. No tomato sauce, just like our pasta in Don Det.
Next day we opted to get garlic bread from the same shop. Surely garlic bread can’t be messed up. Wrong! The garlic bread was doused in the same sickly sugar syrup that the pizzas were.
Once we were almost mended we went out for dinner with a couple of friends we met in Don Det. We got a Laos hot pot. This is where a pot of soup broth is simmering on your table, heated by some hot coals, and you add your meat / fish and vegies to it as you go. Was an excellent meal. Delicious, fun, and ridiculously cheap. It cost around AUD$4 for the whole thing – about $1 per person.
Our first stop in Laos was Don Det, an island in the Mekong River, part of the 4000 islands group, just across the border from Cambodia. We thought we had seen the last of being ripped off by Cambodian’s but we were in for one last surprise. The Cambodian bus driver tried to sell us our boat tickets to Don Det for double the normal price. We said no thanks and headed down to the river front to buy the tickets off the Lao boat driver. Unfortunately the bus driver followed us down there, angrily yelled at the boat driver, we presume threatening the boat driver to ensure he still got his cut. The boat driver was friendly, old, couldn’t speak English and looked like he had worked hard his whole life. It makes us sad to see the likes of him exploited by the “educated” upper class.
The main thing to do at Don Det is relax on your hammock outside your bungalow overlooking the Mekong River. At night the bungalow hosts often make small fires on the beach where the guests can sit around and chat and relax which we did on one night. Also we hired a bike to visit Khone Phapheng falls which are famous for being the obstacle preventing the upper Mekong from being navigable by the early Europeans. A railway had to be built to circumvent them.
It was on Don Det where we got the now infamous “worse meal ever served in any restaurant anywhere”. Hanging out for some pasta after being rice and noodled out, we ordered the penne bolognese from the restaurant adjoining our accommodation Run only by locals, this should have served as a warning that maybe their western food might be a bit dodgy. Actually the pasta was inedible. The meat in the bolognese was chunky stewed beef. It had a very strong stewy flavour, like it was fermented and salted and stewed for a month. Tomato was totally absent from the dish. Instead it was topped with grated carrots and spring onion. Nothing else. Sharni could not swallow even a single piece of pasta. Joe struggled with a few pieces, not wanting to make the chef feel too bad. But no amount of good will could have made this dish palatable. We quietly snuck out to our bungalow and went to bed a little hungry.