We just completed a two week journey starting in Northern Laos, taking us through to Southern Laos. Interestingly, a friend and I did almost the exact same route sixteen years prior, back in 1998! Interesting to me, at least.
Going in, I was really quite unsure about what to expect. Especially after having seen the major changes that have happened in Thailand and Malaysia over the same period of time. (In a nutshell, SE Asia is pretty darn cushy these days!)
‘Laos time’ is a saying I have heard often, describing the speed at which most things happen in the country. ‘Have patience when dealing with anything’ would be another way to put it.
Thankfully, for the most part, change in the country has been happening on the typical Laos clock – a little bit here, a little bit there. But not a lot, overall.
It is still a trip to the ‘real Asia’, as some travelers say.
On my first trip, it was a similar experience to what we had to do to get into Myanmar about a month ago. A bit of a pain in the butt, having to go to the Embassy in Bangkok and all that jazz.
Getting to Laos is now as easy as can be – just show up at the border and get whatever visa you need there. But be warned! Our hotel took care of the visas for us the night before in Chiang Khong, Thailand. This was a really good thing, because there was about fifty or more people in the lineup to get the visa at the Laos border and we got to walk right past because we already had ours.
…which is incredibly important if you plan on taking the slow boat like we did. I’m convinced that if we had to wait in that lineup, we would have missed the boat. Literally!
The Trip Through Laos
If I’m honest, there is not a great deal of ‘sites’ to be seen in Laos. A trip to Laos is more about embracing the people, the culture, the slower pace of life, and spending some time in the Great Outdoors.
Similar to the last time I was there, we had some serious time restrictions on this trip. Regretfully, this forced us to have to pass on a couple of the big sites. Namely, The Plain of Jars and Four Thousands Islands. Perhaps in another sixteen years 🙂
***Note: The route lines Google draws between ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ are quite wrong. We floated down the Mekong, dividing Laos and Thailand much of the way there, but I’m unable to specify that on the map!
The Slow-Boat Down the Mekong: Last time I did this trip, the river was the only way to get through the North to Luang Prabang. Now, you can take buses on roads and bridges (as is erroneously shown in the above map)
But that’s no fun when there’s still a boat to be taken!
It was quite difficult back in the day to take the slow-boat compared with now: there were no tour companies, barely any tourists, there was a hole in the floor boards of the boat to poop through, and our boat even ‘broke down’ forcing us to spend an extra night in a remote village en route.
This time, we bought a ticket for sixty dollars way back in Chang Mai, and absolutely everything was done for us to get us to Luang Prabang, save having to book our own hotel in Pakbeng. Even a packed lunch for the first day on the boat!
The Mekong’s water level would have been much higher on my first trip due to the time of year. I remember it being pretty easy to float down. This time was a bit more exciting – big rocks towering over the boat all around much of the way, with the odd, near-rapid and whirlpool to take us on. I swore I heard us bonk the bottom at least once.
Pakbeng: The slow boat trip is a two day journey, with one night spent en-route in a town called Pakbeng. To put it bluntly, Pakbeng was a shit-hole in 1998, and continues to be today. Last time we were there, two of the people we were with even got robbed in the middle of the night with the classic cutting off of their money belts. Nothing bad happened this time, except we had to ask the large extended family living in the hotel to keep it down because we were trying to sleep and they were sitting around laughing, drinking and cooking right outside our rooms. There were a few newer, and nicer looking hotels/guesthouses up the newer part of the road in town, but overall the town clearly still needs some improvement.
The only trouble we had on the journey was when we finally did get to Luang Prabang, the boat stopped five kilometers north of town and told us we had to tuk-tuk the rest of the way. One English guy on the boat took charge telling us it was a scam and to stay on the boat, while yelling at the captain to take us all the way. It seemed we had a mutiny on our hands.
But after a half hour or so of nothing happening, with the boat captain in hiding, and one of the ladies running the boat telling us we were free to sleep on the boat if we didn’t feel like getting off, we gave up and took the tuk-tuk.
Who knows, maybe that’s how it is now, or maybe it’s a scam. Whatever the case, the captain lives on the boat, so you can be sure you won’t outlast him if you wait for him to take you all the way to town and he doesn’t want to.
In any case, overall, I love that slow-boat ride. It is comfortable, relaxing, unique, and quite beautiful. Do it if you ever get the chance.
Luang Prabang: We spent four nights in this great little town. I barely could remember a thing about it from the first trip, only that I liked it. This time I liked it again, even more so. But I hear a lot of people tell me how great a place Luang Prabang is, and a person should be careful to not build it up too, too much for themselves if they are planning to go.
It has an incredible night market, oodles of great restaurants and bars everywhere, beautiful buildings full of character, and a few nice temples and museums to boot.
If you go, the Kuang Si waterfalls are not to be missed, they are about an hour’s tuk-tuk ride out of town. A 20 minute, steep hike brings you to the top of the waterfalls, and it’s well worth it because you can walk right to the edge of the falls, with only a bamboo fence to stop you from going over. There’s also a rescued bear sanctuary on the path up to the waterfalls. It looked like they were well taken care of with lots of fun things for the bears to play with. Obviously it would be better if they were in the wild, but at least they’re still alive!
And be sure to visit the UXO (unexploded ordinance) Visitor Center which is small, but packed full of staggering information about cluster bomb remains that still litter the country today after the Vietnam War. To give you an idea, ten years ago, 85,000,000 tons of UXO was out there, killing around one unlucky person a day. After a decade of working hard to clean it up, 84,950,000 tons of the stuff is still out there. Relentless. The visitors centre was really hard to find. Our hotel had no idea what or where it was, and neither did the tuk-tuk drivers. We finally google mapped it, and had a tuk-tuk driver take us to where the map said. It wasn’t even close as it turned out. We eventually found it a few kilometres away on the side street next to the huge statue of King Sisavang Vong. If you’re thinking of going to the UXO, it’s probably best to ask your driver to just take you to the statue.
Vang Vieng: A seven hour journey south from Luang Prabang along a very windy road, leaving even my rock-solid stomach feeling woozy, lies Vang Vieng.
Between the last time I was in Laos (we didn’t stop here then) and September, 2010, the place built itself up into an inner-tubing Mecca. Almost a backpacker rite of passage, it seems. But then it all came crashing down when a couple of Aussie backpackers died, one of them being the child of someone who worked in the Australian media. From what I understand those were far from the first two deaths, and the tubing was shut down.
Since then, the tubing has been allowed to continue once more and is thus starting to build itself up again. But we didn’t bother to do it ourselves. Too many drunk teenagers for me.
Instead we spent both days walking out to the caves and a viewpoint in the absolutely beautiful surrounding countryside, around six kilometers out of town.
Here’s the thing I just can’t wrap my head around about Vang Vieng: pretty much every bar and restaurant in the entire town plays nothing but episodes of the show Friends. Apparently it’s been that way forever. If anyone knows why they all play it, let me know!! I just can’t seem to find a way to accept the fact and move on.
Vientiane: The capital city of Laos, perhaps another five hours south from Vang Vieng. I don’t mind the place, if nothing else for its nice selection of decent, westernized bars and restaurants. A nice change from the previous weeks of not necessarily having that option.
We spent two nights there but there really isn’t much to do except eat, shop, and go admire the ‘Monster of Concrete’ as it deems itself.
Konglor Cave: About seven hours southeast from Vientiane, you likely won’t ever need to see another cave again after seeing this one. I didn’t go here on my last trip to Laos, and found out it wasn’t even a thing I could have done back then.
To see the cave, you hop into a long, narrow wooden boat with your driver, at the mouth of the cave, equipped with a life jacket and headlamp (provided with your ticket), and travel over seven kilometers through a mountain and out the other side. Incredible.
There is one area inside the cave that is well lit, showing off the stalactites and all that cave goodness, where you get to leave the boat and walk around for a bit. After that it is very dark. Very, very dark. We were glad they provided us with headlamps because our flimsy ones wouldn’t have come close to doing the trick.
Massive caverns all the way, some as high as perhaps five stories or more. The water was really quite low, and in addition to roughly scraping the bottom numerous times (which explains all the leaks in the boat) we had to get out a number of times so the boat could be pulled up a set of rapids.
Out the other side of the mountain to stop for a beer in a small village, then back in the boat to do the whole thing again in reverse. Awesome.
We stayed in Konglor village, only a fifteen minute walk to the mouth of the cave. And we loved it there – surrounded by tobacco fields, very peaceful and quiet, very welcoming, no one harassing us about anything. I could have easily stayed a whole week there! We stayed at Chantha Guesthouse which was very clean and spacious, and had a great big deck overlooking the tobacco fields with wide open views of the surrounding mountains. The owners were so laid back, we didn’t have to check in, and didn’t have to pay until we checked out – which happened to be at 6:30 am, too early for them to be up, so we left what we hope was the right amount on the desk.
Pakse: We hopped on the 6:30 a.m. tuk-tuk out of Konglor village, local style, and sat on side benches for five whole hours. It was nice and cool and breezy, and we had great views out the open sided truck. Our plan was to transfer to a big bus and head to Savannakhet for the night, but when we got to our transfer station our final destination of Pakse was only an extra couple hours. So we buckled down for the long haul. Thirteen hours all together on buses that day, with the “VIP” big bus being no less local than the tuk-tuk as it stopped for every single person it saw on the side of the road.
Note that I stayed in Savannakhet on my first trip through Laos before heading straight east into Vietnam. But all I remember of the place was eating a locust, and going to a swimming pool where you couldn’t see the bottom because it was so murky, while being surrounded by a bunch of eight year old kids smoking cigarettes. Odd what the brain retains sometimes.
Pakse is a smallish, fairly quiet town, perched on the edge of the Mekong, with not a lot to do. But pleasant enough to stay for a day.
A nice old temple, some neat old, colonial-looking buildings, and a shopping mall that even had escalators! Oh, and plenty of options to take an hour out for a nice, relaxing massage.
Pakse was our final destination in Laos since we could get a direct flight to Siem Reap from there, saving us a minimum fourteen hour bus journey through untamed, Northern Cambodia. The airport in Pakse is small and well organized. We got there two hours early and easily could have arrived only one hour early, so we killed time by browsing in a few shops, and drinking a beer outside. And so we boarded our airplane for the easy one-hour flight with Laos Air. In fact, it was so easy, the plane left a half hour before our scheduled departure time!
Me Love You Laos Time
I must say, it does feel a little selfish to be wishing a lack of progress upon a country, so to speak. After all, not keeping pace with the western world is never something the locals want. I have traveled the developing world a fair bit, and in my experience what the locals want is to live like the characters they see in the Hollywood movies they watch.
Just like most people in the developed world seem to want, I guess.
In any case. Go to Laos, for a taste of the real Asia! And may you be screwed over from time to time, and may the roads you travel be bumpy, and may the buses you take break down, and may the food you eat make your tummy ache a little.
Just like it was 1998.