A little more than 3 weeks ago, on Saturday the 13th of May, we crossed the border and left the amazing Thailand. When we took a tuktuk from the border to our hotel, it became clear Laos was going to be, let’s say, ‘slightly different’ than Thailand. No comfortable smooth roads, cows walking along and crossing the road… But very charming!
We spent the night in a town close to the border, because early in the next morning, we planned to take the slowboat to Luang Prabang. The trip would take us 2 days and soon it became clear that this was absolutely the best way to enter Laos. The boat took us down the river through a magnificent part of Asia. We saw mountains, remote villages, a lot of small boats with fishermen and little children spending time on the side of the Mekong whilst waving at us.
After 2 days, we arrived in Luang Prabang, which is the forth biggest city in the country, with around 40.000 inhabitants. We only booked a hotel for 2 nights, but soon we decided to stay a little longer, because it was by far our favorite town in the whole country, especially the old town-part. Here are some reasons why:
– The night market in the middle of old town is unlike Thai night markets rather small but very cosy
– There are some cool restaurants and bars nearby. Utopia was one of our favorites, a bar famous among tourists to have a drink, take a rest, read a book etc with a cool view on the Mekong river.
– We had a great stay in the Singharat Guesthouse, where we got a welcome drink, the staff was super friendly, …
– It’s the perfect city to just wander around
– The city is a mix of temples and French colonial buildings
Next to spending a lot of time at our hotel or in the town (due to the rain), we rented a bike and went to the Khun Si waterfalls and the Bear Rescue Center. The ride was about 50 minutes, but it was worth it. The Khun Si waterfalls are the most beautiful set of waterfalls we have seen so far. Unfortunately it was raining and quite cold, so we weren’t able to swim in the waterfalls, but this was another small paradise within South East Asia.
The Bear Rescue Center is located right next to the waterfalls and contains about 30 to 40 bears. You might think ‘Okay, why the hell would you ‘Rescue Bears’ and put them in cages?’, but the truth is it really is a good thing. Bears are being hunted in South East Asia because locals believe that the gall of bears can be used as a cure in medecins. They catch bears, then put each bear in a way to small cage (1m x 1m x 1m) and put a small pipe in their gallbladder. Insane and super super sad 🙁 The bear rescue center rescues the bears from this no-life, feeds them and keeps them safe.
After 5 days in Luang Prabang, we took the minivan to Nong Khiaw.
Nong Khiaw is a really small village but its location is magnificent, along a big river and right between a set of mountains. We went to a 360-viewpoint which was really awesome, we visited a cave which was used by locals, soldiers and highly ranked people as a shelter during the Secret War (from 1953-1975) and we were planning on doing a day of ziplining. Unfortunately, both Laura and I got sick during our stay in Nong Khiaw. We didn’t know what to blame: the local food, the cannot-be-trusted ice cubes or the malariapills we started taking. It resulted in a day of laying in bed and doing absolutely nothing, so we left Nong Khiaw quite disappointed because we were really looking forward to the ziplining.
Fun fact: When we arrived in our hotel in Nong Khiaw, the light in our bathroom was broken. We asked the staff to help us out and when we came back in the evening, we found a ladder and a light in a box in front of our hotel room. Self-service, apparently! 🙂
The VIP-bus in Laos
We took a minivan back to Luang Prabang, spent the night there and decided to try the Vip-bus for our 6 hour trip to Vang Vieng. It was an experience.
Although the bus seats are comfortable, we never expected that 6 hours with only locals (no tourists on the bus) would teach us more about locals than the past 2 weeks. Here is what we found out on the bus:
– In Laos, it is okay to shout when you’re on the phone
– In Laos, it is okay to lean your seat back without checking if the person behind you isn’t stuck with his knees
– In Laos, it is okay to drive a bus full of people through the mountains like a lunatic
– In Laos, it is okay to feel sick on the bus (can’t blame them) and make disgusting sounds like you’re about to start vomiting the whole time
– In Laos, when you walk through the bus, you’re supposed to grab ahold of the seats of people sitting there and push hard back and forth to make sure they are awake when you pass them
After this long and really frustrating trip, we finally made it to Vang Vieng!
This city is most famous among tourists for its tubing: relaxing on a big tube and floating down the river. It used to be a big thing several years ago, with hundreds of tourists floating down the river, stopping at a lot of bars along the river to drink alcohol and takae drugs. You could even find drugs on the menu in these bars! Unfortunately, the combination of alcohol, drugs and risky slides and cliffs to jump from costed the lives of dozens of people. That’s why several years ago the government finally decided to do something about it and closed almost all of the bars.
Anyhow, the moment you walk into the city you notice that it used to be a hotspot for tourists. Bars everywhere, restaurants with lots of European dishes and guesthouses in every street. We spent 3 days in the city and next to doing the soft version of tubing, we walked around the streets of Vang Vieng, ate a great pizza at Il Tavono and we made a little tour by motorbike. We visited the impressive Tham Phu Kam cave and decided to finish our bike trip by visiting a waterfall. Unfortunality, since it is dry season, the waterfall was dry and a storm was coming… Result: we drove 20 minutes in one of the craziest storms we ever witnessed and ended up with a small stash of water in our shoes and soaking wet clothes.
We left Vang Vieng to go to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Unlike the capitals of countries we visited before, there was not much to do in this city. We spent there 1 night and had to do quite some research to find something worth visiting. We ended up with a visit to the night market, a swim in the Ocean waterpark and a visit to the COPE museum. The last visit was absolutely worth it; COPE, Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, is an organisation that makes protheses for Laos people. Great organisation and the story behind it is mind blowing. During the Vietnam war (1964-1973), the US dropped at least 270 million cluster bomblets over Laos, of which 10-30% have not exploded (yet). As a result, the government is still swiping areas in Laos village by village and people get in bomb accidents every day.
The road to the South
Since our next step, Pakse, was 800 kilometers down, we decided to take a sleeper bus. Of course we had heard of ‘sleeper buses’ before; just like most of you, we were expecting a normal bus, but with some extra space for the legs and a chair that could lean back more than average. At least, that’s what sleeping buses in Europe are like most of the time.
What we got, was quite surprising. When you book a sleeper bus, you really are meant to sleep. All the seats of the bus were removed and instead they put 2 layers of beds on each side of the bus. You sleep with 2 people in 1 bed of about 1,8m x 0,9m. Luckily we were 2, otherwise you would end up spooning with a stranger the whole night. You have no seats, so there’s no comfortable way to sit up, but laying down is quite comfortable. Sleeper buses are definitely the best way to cover long distances.
Pakse and the Bolivan Loop
This small town in the south of Laos was our take-off point for our loop with a motorbike through the Bolivan Plateau. We saw a lot of pretty waterfalls and visited a local tribe and learned about their culture and values. It was astonishing to see how these people live their lives. Here are some facts:
– Women can never in their life leave the small village
– Men can have multiple wives
– Some girls get pregnant for the first time on the age of 13 (!)
– They live with a lot of people in 1 house. There was a house with the size of approximately 100 square meters that contained 69 people!
– When someone dies in an accident, it brings bad luck. That’s why the family of the victim has to leave the tribe and live 5 years in the jungle. That’s the only way they can clear themselves from bad vibes and regain access to the village.
We spent our last days in Laos on the 4000 Islands, just several kilometers from the Laos-Cambodian border.
The 4000 Islands got their name thanks to the Mekong river, that formed over the years a group of small islands on the river. We stayed at Don Det, an island where the main to-do’s are 2 things: relax and enjoy the views. And we must admit, we did! We had some time left, so we decided to go for one last highlight in Laos.. We spotted wild Irrawaddy dolphins!
We had a great time in Laos! Our plan was to publish this blog several days ago, but the internet connection in Laos is as reliable as the weather in Belgium is.
We’ll be back soon with a big surprise 🙂 Feel free to comment below!