Published: February 7th 2007January 28th 2007
For the last week or so we have been travelling around Laos, a country we both had little knowledge of before we arrived here. After our peaceful night train to Nong Khai we managed to negotiate our way into the town centre and then back out to the Thai-Laos Friendship bridge in order to make our crossing into Laos. Our tuk tuk driver initially took us to some dodgy office to try and get us to pay double the standard price for a visa but the plan was foiled by Mike's vast knowledge of scams within the Asian continent (that's the bit he loves most in Lonely Planet), so we knew we were able to get our visa at the border crossing. It was a very simple process, turn up, hand in your passport, 20 minutes later you are ushered over to collect it then you walk through the border. We met one man who had been conned by a local who said that he would need a Lao translator to get it so he was pretty pissed off when he saw us sauntering up and sorting it all out with not a word of Lao between us.
Vientiane main street
Yep, its a building site.
was into Vientiane. We hooked up with a fellow Brit and two Indian guys at the border to get a minibus into town and arrived at our hostel about an hour later. The first impression of Vientiane was that the whole place was being rebuilt. There were piles of rubble, sand and bricks everywhere. The second impression was it didn't feel anything like a capital city. The town seems about the size of my home town of Guildford but actually has a population of 450,000 which is 10% of the entire population of Laos. After a little wander around we ended up heading in to a fairly upmarket looking local restaurant. It turned out that its actually a charitable organisation which is working to provide local children with a career path by teaching them to cook. Our meal was prepared by some of these enterprising youngsters and both were lovely. At the end of the meal we debated about leaving a tip and found we didn't have any small change, so we guiltily slunk away. Next we needed to buy a ticket to Luang Prabang for the following day. We jumped in a tuk tuk outside the hostel and armed
A Dip Before Sundown
Some locals having a swim before it gets dark.
with the knowledge that a journey to the bus station should cost 5,000 kip we accepted a price of 30,000 kip! In truth, we had become a little confused with all the zeros that had suddenly appeared at the end of every sum and thought we were getting a great deal that was less than the recommended amount in the guidebook. Doh! We realised halfway to the station and told the tuk tuk driver we wouldn't be needing a lift back when we arrived! While we were paying for our tickets I had another realisation. The amount I had given the charitable restaurant was actually double what the bill was! Instead of 100,000 kip I had handed over a wodge of 20,000 notes thinking they were 10,000 notes. So they got a tip after all - a 100% one! The only saving grace was that it was all for a good cause!
After we had bought our tickets we decided to walk down to the river and seek out the sunset bar which was listed in our guidebook. We spent about half an hour moseying through residential areas, down a dirt road, through stray dogs and washer women. It
Rich beyond my wildest dreams
Sadly this is about 50 quid so not really.
was a really good experience and allowed us to see a more local side of the capital. We got to the sunset bar which turned out to be an entirely wooden construction which was slightly shabby but afforded a great view of the Mekong River. It was enchanting watching the sun go down over children playing in the water, fishermen in their longboats and families doing their evening chores.
The following day we headed off to Luang Prabang to meet with Becky and Tim. The journey was uneventful but incredibly windy and after a lunch break we drove through some incredible scenery. Big limestone peaks covered in trees surrounded us and the whole scene was hazy with smoke from local fires.
We arrived in Luang Prabang and checked into a hostel then set about exploring. Its a very beautiful place on the intersection of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan river. All along the banks of the Khan are vegetable crops and we frequently saw small children leaping off the bridge that adjoined the two banks and being swept downstream. It looked like great fun! The town itself is a UNESCO heritage site which means contruction has
Sunset with Beer Lao
Easily one of the highlights of Laos is the local beer, especially when drunk in such beautiful surrounds.
been regulated so it didn't have the building site feel of Vientiane and there was alot of great architecture left from the French colonial era. We had alot of fun whilst we were there. On one of the days Mike and I climbed Phu Si which is a large hill in the middle of the town which is home to 3 different temples and is the site of a footprint thought to belong to Buddha. The hill afforded us great views of the area but the ever present haze of smoke marred the scene somewhat. We also visted the Kuang Si waterfalls nearby. They were very beautiful but a little less forceful than they usually are due to the dry season. We also had a little dip in a natural pool halfway down stream from the waterfall. It was icy! Our four days there were really fun and filled with great food, great bars and some lovely walks. In the middle of town is an amazing night market selling great locally produced textiles. They have duvet sets all hand embroidered, bags, clothes and just things that were more interesting than the fake western goods in the Bangkok night markets. We
The Khan River
left Luang Prabang with heavier bags than when we had arrived!
Eventually it was time to say goodbye and we headed down to Vang Vieng with Becky and Tim. Vang Vieng is a completely different kettle of fish. Its a lot smaller than Luang Prabang but is still surrounded by the amazing limestone rock formations, called Karsts. The Nam Song river runs through it and there is one main street. On this main street are many many bars, most of which play Friends DVDs throughout the day and movies at night. Its compared fairly frequently to Kho San Road but we really enjoyed it. The main thing people come here for is tubing down the river. This involves travelling 4 km upstream by tuk tuk with a great big yellow tractor tyre inner tube, jumping out at the end and getting in the water to float downstream for a few hours. Along the way are bars where you can stop and grab a beer and do some crazy jumps into the river. One of these is a trapeze type rope swing which Mike, Becky and I all partook of. As you can see it was a pretty scary experience
Becky and Amy with flowers for Buddha. Unfortunately we never gave them to him because they wanted a fortune to go in.
for me and Mike's first time elicited a rather throaty scream from him, but on his third go he was showing off by swinging one handed! The hostel we initially stayed with were eager to take our money but by the third day had hoisted us out of our room despite assurances we could stay. After a fifteen minute debate they concluded that their first instincts were correct and called someone to tell us there was no room at the inn. Next door we found an, admittedly not as nice, substitute which cost us $5 a night. For that money it was excellent value. After another few days here we headed on our journey back to Vientiane. Our VIP bus (so called because they have toilets and air con) had no toilet and one poor soul ended up sat on a plastic stool in the aisle for the 4 hour journey. It also departed 40 minutes late. Once again the greedy hostel owners of our initial accommodation showed what they were made of.
Now, we are in Vientiane. We are currently waiting to get out of here. The plan is to head South to Si Phan Don which means
Four Thousand Islands. We are told they are amazing and that more tubing fun can be had. In addition they are home to a very rare type of dolphin called the Irrawaddy dolphin. Watch this space!
There are more photos below