North to Central Laos
28.05.2012 - 14.06.2012 30 °C
Having only planned to travel through Laos and not other countries in Southeast Asia all at the same time, I wanted to start my journey in the North, and work my way slowly back to the country's captital od Vientiene, from where I will fly back home. I took a local flight connection in to the Northern Bokeo province, to a little city called Huay Xai, popular as the border crossing town for travellers between Laos and Thailand. It was small, with one main street littered with guesthouses and sandwich shops. After a quiet, uneventful first day there, I departed early the next morning on the Classic Gibbon Experience trek.
It took about 2 hours on the back of the truck, and another hour of trekking to gather at the tiny village where we were outfitted with harnesses and assigned to our prospective treehouses. I wound up in treehouse 7, with a lively group of many different personalities, which I think made the whole experience even more enjoyable. Our treehouse was by far the furthest away, being another 75 mins or so of uphill hiking through the muddy terrain, but when we arrived it was well worth it. We had an amazing view of the jungle, and were also lucky enough to have gibbon sightings on both morning that we were there.
Tip: Bring cards and other forms of entertainment, binoculars would have come in useful, and of course never go without your 90% DEET and a roll of toilet paper.
There are 3 possible ways to travel from North to central Laos: Plane, Bus and Boat. I opted to take the slow boat down the mekong river, a 2 day trip with 7-9 hours on each day, with an overnight non-optional stop in a little riverside village called Pak Beng. The boats have now been greatly improved compared with 4 years ago, now equipped with movable bus seats and adequate cushioning, although I would not have turned down an extra pillow for nap time comfort. Although many travelers do book their accommodation prior to arrival, I would strongly recommend checking out a few of the guesthouses on arrival. Pictures can be deceiving. I stayed at a small guesthouse called Bounmy up the hill (yes, there's just one hill), where the flamboyant host with verbal diarrhea and a nervous tick, obviously high on "something", showed us to our rooms. The next day we were back on the slow boat en route to the UNESCO site of Luang Prabang.
Tip: Bring an iPod, cards, or a good book. Actually... Preferably all three. It's a long ride.
Luang Prabang is probably the most well known area of Laos, being the country's holy city and UNESCO site. The city has everything to offer, whether you are there for the history, religion, scenery or food. The offering of alms to the Buddhist monks displays a vibrant mix of bright orange robes into the main streets, creating an air of serenity and awe amongst both the tourists and locals. The main street then becomes deserted during daylight hours, as the locals retreat to their homes and shophouses to escape the heat of the day, and the tourists explore the other sites of interest in and around the city. Such examples include the various temples or "Wat"s in Luang Prabang, the panoramic views on top of PhuSi hill, the Rock cave Pak Ou (~1hr by tuk tuk), or my favorite: Kuang Si falls: Several layers of cool clear waterfalls set amongst nature, 45 mins by tuk tuk, or a "mere" 32km bicycle ride up a couple of hills. Tip: Do the bike ride, but start before 7am to avoid the sun. You'll sweat anyway, but it makes the cold waters of the falls all the more enjoyable.
At night, the bustling night markets sell everything from cheap clothing and souvenirs, to dinner buffets for those on a tight budget.
Most famous amongst the party-goers for it's vivacious nightlife, Vang Vieng's most popular attraction is hiring giant rubber tubes to use as buoys to drift down the 4km stretch of river littered with bars on both sides. The "Tubers" coast down the picturesque Nam Song river, pulling themselves into the bars at leisure to enjoy free shots or buckets of lao-lao whisky, "happy shakes", and thumping music. Each bar offers a unique variety of activities such as mud boxing, slingshots, rope swings and slides to lure the tourists into a criss-crossed floating pattern down the river like a drunken fish. There are frequent reports of deaths and injuries, no doubt resulting from the foolish combination of senseless drinking and adventure activities, but as long as common sense is used, it is relatively safe. And of course if you feel you're not quite spent, there are always cafe's in town for "happy shakes and pizzas", or various bars that also entertain free buckets of whisky and the generic "door-doof" music.
Other recommendations while staying in Vang Vieng include Kayaking down the upper Nam Song river (class 2 rapids in rainy season), cycling around to the wide array of caves and waterfalls in the area, or rock climbing (I used Adam's climbing school and it was excellent).
The town itself does actually emit a very chill atmosphere during the day, with all the guesthouses playing reruns of "Friends" on the TV, their furniture organised in a relaxed fashion to accommodate a lazy afternoon of refreshing fruit shakes on a cushioned recline to settle in and watch episode after episode of the classic American sitcom. For those who aren't fans of the show, you can occasionally find cafes which offer "Family Guy" instead.
Ban Na Hinh(Khoun Kham) and the Konglor caves
Totally off my planned route and schedule, I heard about the caves from a fellow traveller and decided it was worth the trek South to check it out. It turned out to be quite an adventure, having taken a VIP bus to Thakek, arriving at 2.30am after a 6 hour ride, checked into a random guesthouse 4km outside of the centre with rock hard beds and rude staff, only to discover at 8am that it was a 5 hour trip one way to the caves and impossible to do in one day. My travel companion and I then went to the local market to charter a ride to a closer village, and wound up taking not one, but two local Songkaews (large tuk tuks with wooden planks for seats used to transport 18-22 locals from one village to another on the bumpy road with potholes) through Vieng Kham to the tiny little country village of Ban Na Hinh. As I gingerly stepped off the second songkaew and rubbed my bruised tailbone, I thought "This cave better be worth it". It was.
After spending the afternoon drinking Beer Lao "Lao-style" with a couple of tipsy locals, we turned in for an early night, and started the next morning early on a motorcycle ride through the scenic rock cliffs and lush green rice fields to the Konglor Park and caves. Even with stopping to take photos and converse with random villagers, the ride took a leisurely 70 minutes.
The Konglor caves were spectacular, spanning a vast 7.5km in length, using a motorized canoe to maneuver through the cold dark waters of the caves, and disembarking for a short stroll to see the amazing display of stalactites and stalagmites in the heart of the cave. Our canoe was the only one that day, making me grateful that I came in low season, as it made the trip all the more enjoyable and serene.
Vientiane: Laos Capital
As my flight was out of the capital, I allocated my last two days to relaxing and light site-seeing, enjoying a cycle around the city on the first day, stopping at the COPE centre (highly recommended), talat sao, patuoxay monument, Wat Sisaket, and That Luang, and ending the day with a tantalizing evening meal of whole grilled Mekong river fish, papaya salad, and sticky rice at Khop Chai Deu, a quaint restaurant with a live band. On my second day, I signed up for a cooking class by the Mekong river to learn how to re-create classic local foods like the famous sticky rice, papaya salad, Mok Ba( fish in banana leaf), and Ping Gai (lemongrass grilled chicken). I followed this with a journey on a local bus to the Buddha Park(xieng khan), where you can see the various statues of both Buddhist and Hindu influences, and enter the mouth of the Demon to ascend the steps from hell to heaven... very Dante's Inferno.
For my last meal in Laos, I dined at Makphet, a cosy restaurant run by Friends International, which helps disadvantaged Lao adolescents learn useful tourism trades, as well as help fund their activities and healthcare. The menu combines both modern and traditional flavor combinations and techniques, resulting in a tempting delight for the senses. Finally, take a stroll to the Mekong river for the night market souvenirs, or head over earlier at dusk to watch their amusing display of "local" aerobics.
Altogether one of my most memorable trips to date, and at present my favorite country in Southeast Asia.