Laos is the most bombed country in the world, a fact I could hardly believe when seeing such a beautiful country for the first time and meeting its wonderfully hospitable people. How could this be a country that have experienced such horrors, many of which still haunt them in the form of unexploded ordinances. It was only after returning to London and reading Dervla Murphy’s ‘One Foot In Laos’ (Flamingo 2000) and her extraordinary interactions with the people of Laos did I truly appreciate how much this little country was hurt.
Laos is truly a magical place, the entire country feels relaxed and in tune with itself. I was there for 7 nights and could have easily stayed for 7 weeks. I felt like there was so much more to see and experience beyond those places I had visited. My itinerary took me from the Thai – Lao border, with two days sailing down river with Luang Prabang as my destination, from there we headed to Vang Vieng and on to the capital Vientiane.
The Lao border control is something to be experienced. The moment you clamber up the bank you walk a short distance to immigration, which is a small office only slightly bigger than a box room where you queue to submit your visa and then 30mins later you get called back. It all sounds simple, but when you stand in a queue for over 1 hour ( it certainly makes good people watching) you thank yourself that in the heat you are further along than those at the back!! For such a popular crossing space, it seems odd to have such a small space for your immigration and visa control, but after fighting my way through a sea of people to get my passport off the man shouting my name at the front you cannot help but laugh at the pure chaos that surrounds you.
With passport and visa in hand, we were off in a tuk tuk to our home for the next two days, our Mekong River houseboat. On hearing that I would spend two full days sailing down the river, I was not sure what sort of transport to expect, but we were all delighted, not a wooden seat in sight, instead the seats from cars and buses offering plenty of room for everyone to stretch out and take in the wonderous landscape we were about to see. Sailing down the Mekong was possibly one of the best experiences I have ever had! As much as I wanted to doze off in the warmth of the sun or read my book I couldn’t take my eyes off my surroundings for very long. The river low, meant we saw much more over the river banks that one would in the rainy season. We were surrounded by dense jungle forest on all sides, small riverside bans ( villages) dotted in the distance, mountains rising in the distance covered with forest. Every so often we would see people out on boats, checking their fishing nets, occasionally one of the small speed boats carrying passengers to Luang Prabang would fly past us causing a mild disturbance to the tranquility of life on the boat. This truly was the way to travel!
On the first night we pulled into a village called Pak Beng, it is very much just a pit stop for people making the same journey as us. It’s a one track village lined with hotels and hostels, the other end shops and the only bar in town! Back on the river we continued to Luang Prabang, the closer we got the more dominant the lime stone Karst became. Arriving at Luang Prabang meant saying good-bye to the boat which I could have quite happily stayed on for a few more days – maybe next time?
Getting in yet another tuk tuk, we left the so-called port, and headed to our hotel. At first, nothing about this town shouted out at me, it wasnt until we headed out that evening having a quick look around that I saw the beauty of this place. I soon realised why this was a World Heritage site. The streets lined with a mix of traditional and French colonial buildings, traditional street restaurants, temples hidden behind their tree-lined walls and friendly faces everywhere. That night we ate at the lovelt Lao Lao Garden which offered Lao bbq which you cook yourself (like Korean bbq) and offered much entertainment!
Luang Prabang was truly a place I could have spent more than 3 days. Its felt so pleasant and safe to be walking around and just taking everything in. There was this relaxed vibe, the streets were clean, no one was harassing you to buy things or come into their shop you could just take in the atmosphere and explore at your own pace. The first place to visit in Luang Prabang in Phu si Hill, climbing up those 328 steps give you panoramic views of the town, the mountains and rivers surrounding it. Going down you can either go back the way you came or down the other side which twists and turns pass different statues of Buddah, you even get a glimpse of his footsteps!
At the bottom their in an opportunity to visit the local ethnographic museum which is small but well put together. It gives you a great insight into the many many ethnographic groups that make up Lao allowing you to appreciate the small differences as you travel through the country.
With the afternoon free to myself, I took to the streets to explore, but only once lunch was had. Luang Prabang as a main tourist destination has a variety of places to eat, most offering traditional food but a few ‘cool’ coffee shops have popped, their chilled atmosphere would give starbucks a run for their money. I took to cafe Joma, which in its air-conditioned seating area offered a wide range of simple sandwiches, bagels and cakes. It was a nice break from traditional food, there is only so much rice a girl can eat!! After checking my emails on their free wifi and enjoying my bagel I put my tourist head back on and hit the streets.
First stop on my wanderings of Luang Prabang was the Royal Palace which is now a museum. I made the mistake of leaving my cardigan in the hotel so had to pay 2000Kip to rent a shirt so they would let me ( they only told me this after I had paid for my entrance ticket – sly!). There were very few people in the Palace, and I could see why, it wasnt the most exciting ‘stately home’ I had visited, although there is a pretty impressive car collection in the garage.
From the palace you can walk along one of the main streets ( which at nightfall will become home to the night market) or head down to the river. I took a side street and headed down to the river front, lined with cafes and restaurants overlooking the Mekong. On the other side were an array of French colonia houses, nestled in the side streets were guesthouses, cafes and quirky shops. I felt so at home in Luang Prabang and so relaxed walking around. That night we went to yet another tasty restaurant, this time the Coconut Garden. The food for a second night was amazing, full of flavour and spice!
For a change of scenery, the next day, we headed out to the Kuang Si waterfalls. Which oddly is also home to a bear sanctuary. I am always sceptical about these small animal sanctuaries, you never quite know how well looked after the animals are, but I was surprised. The bears looked good, they had lots of space and seemed to have great fun not going back into the house when called. A little way on you get to the lowest pool of the waterfall. The clear blue water invited you to jump in, but alas I had to wait. There are a series of pools linked by small waterfalls and as you climb you get to large falls and then as you come through the trees you see the big one! It was stunning, the sunlight bouncing off the water, the cloudy blue water flowing slowly. heading down to one of the middle level you can get into them and cool off, and oh it was refreshing!
The water was cold but in the heat of the day it was worth it. That evening was our last in Luang Prabang, it was sad to be leaving, I could have stayed for much longer, so that evening we frequented our favourite bar until it was curfew time at 11.30pm!
The next stop on our journey through Lao was the small town of Vang Vieng. Before getting into the bus I knew very little about this town, only that it was a very bumpy 7 hour driver away. As we wound our way around the mountains, I checked out the Lonely Planet. VangVieng is the place to go for drinking, tubing and kayaking!
This is the destination for all those backpackers we saw at the border, so many back packers!!! The town is quiet during the day as everyone is out tubing down the river or kayaking ( or in some cases sleeping off the night before), at night the bars come alive. Large day beds all facing tvs playing episodes of friends, family guy and the Simpsons, you could have been at an all-inclusive resort in Spain!!! The place to go at night after dinner and drinks is the island, as the guide-book describes ‘anything goes!’ and it does, the bucket bar was definitely the place to be. Three raised seating platforms around a central dance floor,and 80p buckets of drinks, this was a party heaven.
There is little else to do in Vang Vieng, so 2 nights is more than enough there unless you want to party at night and paddle down river in the day. There are some caves, but they only take an hour to explore.
A five-hour journey later and we got to the capital Vientiane. I wasnt really sure what to expect of the capital but as we headed in I could see this wasnt the most exciting place. Most of the sites of interest, the temples and arc de triumph are relatively close together and you can walk between them ( although in the afternoon heat this was not fun). We had an afternoon in the capital and I think that was more than enough.
After sightseeing we found a very nice wine bar situated on one of the main streets, it was very modern and sleek and had a great selection of Australian and New Zealand wines. As night falls, the bars on the river front come alive, it also hosts in the grounds of park a night market ( not quite as pleasurable as the one in Luang Prabang but again there is very little hassle from the sellers!). The bars varey, but most are full of Lao and Thai’s that have popped across the border, music fills the streets either from stereos or live band ( most of which is western music but lots of local museum). We headed into one bar and saluted good-bye to Lao with a drink or two.
Lao was such an amazing country and I cannot wait to go back! Where ever I went, I felt safe and welcome, the people have not caught onto trying to scam tourists yet which is a relief, you can shop in peace and not feel harassed. There is still so much of the country to explore, so I better get planning the next trip!