Published: October 1st 2011August 10th 2011
Thursday 4th August - Wednesday 10th August
We lay awake the night before our departure from Chiang Mai wondering just how safe the bus journey through the mountainous jungle region of northern Laos was going to be and if our chosen route was the right decision. Only about a week ago tropical storm Nock-Ten swept in from the coast of Vietnam in the north, flooding much of northern Vietnam, Laos and regional areas of Thailand. Having read reports, we were concerned about landslides, the quality of the road, the possibility of further torrential rain and getting stuck halfway in the middle of nowhere! However, our other options were an expensive flight on the reportedly dodgy Laos Airlines or a very long detour via Bangkok. It could mean missing Luang Prabang all together. We decided we would wait to see if the rain stayed away for the following 8 hours and if it was looking clear when we woke up, we’d go for it... which is what happened!
It paid off, we got there safely – but not without a lot of discomfort and a very long journey…… The first leg of our 22 hour trip began mid-morning, taking about
5-6 hrs to reach the Mekong River border crossing. We made a short stop in Chiang Rai to visit the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), a Buddhist temple like no other in Thailand and it is just stunning. A really beautiful piece of artistic Buddhist architecture with the most elaborate toilet block I have ever seen!
We hopped on a long tail boat with our packs in the late afternoon sun and crossed the river into Laos. Instantly it felt different here; the houses were much more basic, the pace of life seemed slower and there seemed to be more children hanging around. We picked up a connecting coach which was to be our bed for the night, a very upright and very crushed sort of bed (people were sat on the aisle floor!) and we began yet another overnight bus voyage along the impossibly steep, windy, unpaved mountain roads through the wilderness until we finally rolled into Luang Prabang around 8am the next day. We sometimes wonder how the bus made it through without getting stuck (others since haven’t been as fortunate)….the rain did arrive during the night (the hole in the roof above Chris’ head was the
Luang Prabang, Lao
Taking on the rope swing
give away!) and the roads, if you can call them that, became thick and boggy with red mud. Following months of long and quite often uncomfortable bus journeys, this felt like the final assault. After this we started looking at flights as alternatives!!!
We found a great little hostel and headed out for breakfast to feed the belly and to soak up some of the famous time-stands-still atmosphere of relaxed Luang Prabang. It certainly felt like that. A quaint river town with World Heritage status comprising beautiful old French villas and golden Buddhist temples on almost every corner, all set on a peninsula created by the winding Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. With lantern-lit streets lined with classy restaurants, bars and cafes leading down to the waterfront, it’s no surprise to hear that it’s starting to appear on the A-listers’ radar (well, we were there!).
As we sat soaking up the warm sunshine and recovering from the bus journey over breakfast, contemplating a relaxing afternoon, we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver offering us a cheap ride to the local waterfalls. Before we knew it, we were bumping along the road yet again (our poor bums!) along with
a couple of girls and an American guy, all desperate to take a dip and refresh from the sun and humidity. Tucked in the heart of some beautiful Laos rainforest (and randomly next to a bear sanctuary), the waterfalls were a little piece of paradise and we had a great time swinging off the big rope and wandering though the rainforest with a sandwich and a bottle of Laos Beer (with the strength of Laos Beer reportedly poorly regulated, you never quite know how you’re going to feel after a bottle or two….you could drink three or four no problem, or one could be your lot!).
The rest of our stay in Luang Prabang was just how you’d read in a guide book. It becomes you! Without realising it we adjusted ourselves to suit the pace, attitude and serenity of the place - cruising through the streets on bikes, stopping off for a riverside beer to chatter and looking out across the lumbering Mekong whilst pondering very little...we could have stayed much longer.
Our group of five that visited the waterfalls had quickly expanded to eleven….just enough to hire a minivan for the six hour trip south to
Vang Vieng, the home of ‘tubing’! Having been told the processions of orange-clad monks left their Wats just after sunrise to collect their daily alms from the locals, our 6.15am departure meant we were set up perfectly to witness this. It really was a sight to behold as hundreds of monks walked in single file in silence along the narrow streets, the only sound coming from the torrential rain which had returned overnight.
On the road to Vang Vieng, we got to experience life as a local in the rainy season…..landslides. At one point the road was blocked with a foot of mud covering a 20 metre stretch, which had recently fallen from the surrounding hills. Just as we started to contemplate a long wait until a plough arrived to clear a path, thirty or so villagers appeared….a spot of haggling and 30,000 Kip later (c£2.50) and we were sliding across the mud patch whilst the villagers fought to keep us on the road! Great for us, not so much for the driver who was quick to wash the muddy hand prints off his vehicle at the next stop.
Vang Vieng is all about ‘tubing’! In fact so
Vang Vieng, Lao
Having a blast!
much so, that the jaw dropping scenery of saw-toothed mountains towering over shimmering rice paddies often pales into insignificance. But then again, what’s not to like about jumping in a tractor inner tube and floating down a river, stopping off at bars along the way for an ice cold beer…..a free shot of whiskey….. a ‘bucket’….. We took to the Nam Song river as an international group of 15 travellers comprising English, Aussies, Americans, Irish, Scots, Germans and a guy from Singapore – what an awesome day! Rope swings and water slides into the river, 5-a-side beach football and a messy game of mud volleyball all topped off with a massive dose of warm torrential rain. And we did all this without losing a tyre…..or a person (unfortunately it does happen!) Magic!
We took to bikes the following day along with our group of travelling buddies and headed off to explore some of the many caves and tunnels that exist in the surrounding limestone karst. Being responsible adults we opted to pay for the local guide to give us a tour of the caves…..a 10 year old boy! We followed him in to the cave and after scrambling over
Vang Vieng, Lao
Just call me Indiana Jones!
a few boulders we were surrounded by lots of stalactites and stalagmites, and a Buddha statue bedded into the rock. As we headed for the exit, it slowly became apparent that we weren’t retracing our steps, but heading deeper into the network of cracks and crevices….good job we were fully dressed for the occasion in shorts, t-shirts and a pair of flip flops! The path got narrower and narrower, the floor got muddier and then the roof seemed to close in on us – it was time for hands and knees….and then our stomachs as we crawled through a 15 metre long tunnel only 2.5 feet high. We emerged covered in mud and relieved to see the light of day…but also feeling just a little bit like Indiana Jones!
It was time to move on from Vang Vieng and we continued on our route South, to our final destination in Laos, the capital Vientiane. As capital cities go, Vientiane is small, more like a town really, and a pretty quiet town too. After a leisurely stroll around the town and along the waterfront, we opted for a spot of pampering in the form of a full body traditional Laos
massage to help sooth the aches and pains we’d picked up during the previous two days’ rough and tumble. A nice way to sign off from Laos.
With so much stunning scenery, a relaxed culture and very friendly people, Laos is a place we certainly won’t forget!
C and K xx
There are more photos below