Peaceful Laos: discovering hidden Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang
Our trip to Laos started with our first experience in VIP bed buses for long distances, since the trip from Hanoi to Vientiane takes around 20 hours.
The bus company was going to pick us up in the hotel at 17h, but nobody showed up until 17:30h, when a man came over only to tell us to get our stuff and wait for the bus on a nearby street. There, a bunch of backpackers had been waiting since 17h and our lift to the main bus station didn't appear until 18h.
And when it did, it arrived pretty packed already. After we got in and we left, the minivan had 2 rows of 6 people squeezed in 3 seats with other passengers sitting on them, and for their dismay, the ride until the bus station took 45 minutes. Luckily, the bed bus was another story: we got our beds on the under part of the bunk bed structure, and they were super comfy. The only downside was that our windows were covered and we couldn't see the landscape.
I worried about that in case I would get sick. But things went fine: we had a stop at 22h for dinner and toilet and then we slept the night away. At around 6h we reached the border with Laos and the tricky part started.
While the Vietnamese could stay in the bus, us foreigners had to go personally to get our passports stamped. Problem #1: it was raining. So we walked to the border office under the rain, but it was still closed: the officers were having breakfast in the background. We were desperate for a toilet, and when we found one, of course, there was someone on duty to charge us 5.000 VND. Because priorities!
After getting our Vietnam exit stamp for 1$, we had to walk 1 km under the rain on a deserted road on our own. The mist and the rain were thick, the road was half mud, the mountains impressive, the construction works scary, our vision blurry with our eyes filled with rain, and we didn't even know if we were on the correct path.
Finally, a huge compound of buildings emerged from nowhere and half of the people behind us started to hide and head for the mountains. We kept walking, and we got into the Laos border entry office, where you can process your visa on arrival. Not an easy mission when the offices in the corridor don't follow any logical path of the process and the officials barely speak any English.
We filled in our applications, provided with 2 pictures, paid 31$ for the German passport and 36$ for the Spanish passport, and so we could go through to the other side. The process took almost one hour. And then we had to wait for our bus to make it through as well: considering that there were at least 10 buses ahead of us when we walked to the Vietnamese office, it was not a surprise that we had to wait almost 1 hour to hop back to our beds. Luckily, we could wait in a shop - restaurant nearby; sadly we had forgotten our VND in the bus.
So we stood there, soaked wet, with no money, hungry, cold and miserable for one hour. And while doing so, it occurred to me that we were just having a taste, experiencing a tiny fraction of what refugees heading to Europe had to endure in the past years. The feeling of being insignificant, dealing with border officials whose language you don't understand, having to cope with unforgiving weather, without much in your pockets to help you out. And with that small fraction, we were already cranky and whiny, even knowing that we have 2 of the best passports in the world. Those two hours in the border between Vietnam and Laos put many things in perspective.
I have no pictures of this part of the adventure because taking photos is forbidden in the border.
When our bus arrived where we were, we literally ran up inside. We took out as much wet clothing as we could and covered ourselves with the thick blankets the bus company provided. Soon we were sleeping, and we didn't wake up until late in the morning. And with that, our 20-hour bus ride was almost over: we were in Vientiane at 15h, the sun was shining and it was warm again after over a week of grey weather in Vietnam.
As usual, the bus didn't drop us in the center, a constant for our Asian bus rides. We stopped for a bit in the bus station for toilets and money exchange, which was a great idea, because the exchange rate there was perfect. After that, we took a shared tuk-tuk to our guesthouse and on the road we had a glimpse already of the Patuxay monument, a sort of Lao Arc de Triomphe, and we saw the day market as well.
The city felt much tidier and structured, emptier and with another pace compared to the places we visited in Cambodia and Vietnam. We settled into our room, chilled a bit and soon left in search of food. We had a Pad Thai and a Papaya salad for around 6€ next to the park on the river bank and right after, we went to see the sunset over the Mekong. On the other shore, Thailand was waving at us.
The river bank is the place to be for sunset in Vientiane: Lao people go for a stroll, for a jog, join the outdoors aerobic lessons or buy something in the night market. We joined them for a walk and we realized that no vendors were harassing us, a first in months: the Lao shop owners seemed pretty uninterested in us. They didn't sell, we bought or not.
And only for that, I started strangely liking Laos. Even if prices felt double as in Vietnam, the pace and attitude were so relaxing and comfortable that it definitely made up for the difference.
We went to bed fairly early and next morning we took it very easy. After midday, we made it to the Patuxay monument to see it closer and enjoy the views from above. While the Patuxay is made of concrete instead of stone and locals consider it an ugly building, we loved it. From upstairs, the city, the big governamental buildings and the temples look great. The price to go up was 3.000 KIP (around 0.30€) and we only missed having a café on top or downstairs to go with the shade and fresh air under the building.
We passed a mall and decided to get a SIM card for 10.000 KIP with 5G of data for 50.000 KIP (7€ in total). On our way out we got us grilled bananas with coconut on a street stall for 3.000 KIP and a Lao Báhn Mì in the day market for 5.000 KIP. Very happy with our purchases we kept walking until the Chao Anouvong Park, from where one can directly see the Presidential Palace, and then we slowly headed back to our guesthouse.
We had been considering for a few days to get our Thai visas for more than 30 days in Vientiane, so we were not limited by our free 15 days visa to Thailand because we were entering the country by land (the standard free visa is 30 days if entering by air). After deciding that we should probably stay longer than a month visiting Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, we thought it was better to sort out our visa in the Viantiane Thai consulate early next day.
We had all we needed: 2 passport pictures and the copies of our Lao visa stamp from our passport. Off we went at 8:30h, but Google Maps showed us the wrong address. After finally finding the right place on Foursquare and walking 20 minutes extra, we made it there; we filled in the form and gave our passports away in around 30 minutes: next day we could pick them up after 13h.
We then went to visit the Pha That Luang temple, the symbol of Laos, which is surrounded by a whole complex of other many temples and the Reclining Buddha. Everything looked fantastic, and while you can absolutely see the golden stupa from outside without paying entrance, we gladly paid the 5.000 KIP ticket. Ah, and someone there fell in love with Cihan...
In the evening, I joined the locals in jogging along the Mekong and it felt great. In the last four months, this was only my third opportunity to go for a run: it's hard to find the moment between the heat and the constant nomadic life!
Next day before picking up our passports we discovered a very tiny local spot where we eat probably our best noodle soup in Laos - it's exactly on the corner of Rue Saigon with Rue Hengboun. It doesn't look tempting from the outside, but it's awesome on the inside! Plus, they had this old pictures of how Pha That Luang used to look like.
By 15h we had our 60 days visa for Thailand, and with our duties fulfilled, we kept discovering Vientiane. Now it was time for some history, so we paid a visit to the COPE National Rehabilitation Center, which hosts a permanent exhibition about the Secret War and the consequences of all bombs still buried in Laos rural areas.
The facts are frightening: Laos is the most bombed country in History, with 270 million little bombies thrown from 1964 to 1973. From all those, around 80 million failed to detonate and are now underground, waiting for a peasant to kick it while working in the rice fields, detonate it when cooking too close to it, or for a kid to think it's something to play with. Most of the bombs were actually meant to impact the Ho Chi Minh trail and debilitate the Vietnamese, but if the planes couldn't find their targets and had to return to base, it was not safe for them to land with bombs still on them. So they dropped them in Laos.
Probably one of the artifacts used to help survivors of land mines that impressed me the most was the mirror box to help with phantom pain.
Here below I'm adding one of the documentary films I watched in COPE - please take a few minutes to learn about the consequences those bombs are having in the development of rural Laos:
The COPE Center showcases how mobile units are reaching those rural areas to provide free information, prosthetics, physical rehabilitation and psychological therapy. The stories of people who keep working their fields, keeping jobs and becoming the best at their favorite sports are just incredible.
We ended our last day in Vientiane with another wonderful sunset over the Mekong.
Next day we headed early to Vang Vieng. Even if every time we asked about Vang Vieng, crazy stories of drug-fueled parties and tubing hit us. We chose to believe, though, the sources telling us those were things from the past. The Laos government intervened after 27 people died in Vang Vieng in 2011 and the town is now back to normal. We followed then the path of Dar la vuelta al mundo and we spent 2 amazing days in this beautiful town by the river and surrounded by what seem gigantic rocks.
We spent our first afternoon in Vang Vieng exploring the town by foot. We had a delicious Lao sandwich - very similar to the Vietnamese Bánh Mì - and then we went to Café eh eh, which we had heard it's the best coffee in South East Asia. Well, at least in Laos! We later saw the spectacular views from the river, even if it was dry season, and we decided on the next day we had to go up to one of the mountains.
Something that hasn't changed in Vang Vieng is that guesthouses and restaurants offer episodes of "Friends" on loop in their screens. The tables are just too comfy: they feel like beds and it's easy to spend 2 or 3 hours watching after lunch or dinner. And yeah, we get caught on that.
Next morning we rented a couple of very cute bikes and headed towards the Pha Ngeun or Phagern viewpoint, as recommended by our friends of Dar la vuelta al mundo and also in the guides of JourneyEra and YogaWineTravel. In their posts about Vang Vieng you can also learn about getting into the Blue Lagoon 3, which we didn't have time to visit but sounds amazing.
You need to pay 10.000 KIP to access the viewpoint, but it's absolutely fine. The hike to the top to Pha Ngeun wasn't easy at all: I basically felt like crawling up without safety net, but that might be my vertigo. I was marveled at other Asian tourists who were doing the hike in normal shoes or in flip flops - I was feeling pretty worried with my running shoes and wished for mountain gear! In any case, yes, the views are worth the pain: we arrived sweating like pigs and breathless, but the landscape was stunning. In the rainy season the way must be much more slippery and hard, but then the rice feels are greener.
The only but we could find to the experience was the quantity of plastic bottles and rubbish we found on our way up, even if there are plastic bags along the way where you can throw away your trash. It's just sad that tourists are still so careless!
Once again at the bottom of the hill, we took are bikes and pedaled until the Blue Lagoon 1. We had read that we should go early in the morning to avoid the crowds, but by now it was too late for us. The lagoon was a waterpark where other Asian tourists were having a blast: Korean and Chinese are the majority of visitors in Laos, and one can see why they just love it there. We were not that excited to get on those beautiful but crowded waters, so we went further to the Tham Poukham Cave.
Unsurprisingly, the hike to reach it wasn't easy either. We went up in around 10 minutes, again panting, and when we entered the cave, we were thankful that we had rented at least one frontal light. The rocks were slippery even if it was dry season and there was no mud from other visitor's shoes. The light entering in the entrance made the reclining buddha inside the cave shine, but a few steps inside, the cave was absolutely pitch black and huge. After 15 minutes checking it out, we started to feel in a bit of danger, so we went out.
As a piece of advice, if you are going to visit the Blue Lagoon 1, do it as early as possible in the morning. I'd say rent a motorbike or a bicycle and go on your own. Bring food and water with you so you don't have to deal with the overpriced offer next to the lagoon. Go up to the cave to warm you up and then jump in the lagoon, and hopefully, you'll do so almost alone. After that, you can go explore the other lagoons or go up to the Pha Ngeun viewpoint, at around 4pm to catch the sunset. Basically, do exactly the opposite of what we did!
By the time we were back to our bikes, we could barely feel our legs, and we slowly went back to Vang Vieng. We had a nice green curry with vegetables while watching "Friends", a Lao ice coffee with milk and we gave up: the bikes were rented until the night, but we couldn't move anymore.
Next morning, we headed to Luang Prabang, the city of temples and an UNESCO World Heritage city. The road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang is majestic - the mountains get bigger and greener. So much, I wished we had stayed at least one day extra a few kilometers north from Vang Vieng. Sadly, I wasn't sitting at the left window, so I cannot show you in pictures how beautiful it was. Only show you the location on the map!
We got in Luang Prabang by midday and had some fried noodles for lunch. Right after, we searched for the Royal Palace Museum and surroundings. The Lao architectural style truly amazes me: how many roofs can you overlay? The sun rays were burning us and we had a pause in the grass: how tall can palm trees and bamboo trees get?
We had nice French pastries in Le Banneton café and then we went for a stroll to see where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong. On our way back to our guesthouse, we discovered a corner where ladies prepare the noodle soup you wish: you choose the ingredients, each bunch being 3.000 KIP, put them all in a basket, decide which type of noodles you prefer, and then she prepares you the perfect soup in 5 minutes.
We kept walking towards the night market and we couldn't believe our eyes: the main street, which had been absolutely empty when we walked it few hours before, was now full of stalls and activity. Moreover, there were amazing clothes and souvenirs on sale: I'm so lucky I cannot buy a thing because of lack of space in my bag: otherwise, I would have spent a fortune! And a few meters away we finally discovered the street where you can sit for a buffet: such a shame we had had already dinner...
Next day we kept it slow and had lunch by the Mekong river and spent the afternoon working. I finally decided to go on my own to the Kuang Si waterfall next day and I booked an organized van for it. It was the first time in the 4 months we are now on this trip that I went alone for an excursion. While I always loved to travel alone, I have to admit I'm not used to it anymore.
In the morning, waiting for the van, it really felt strange and a wave of insecurity came to me, which lasted all the way to the waterfall and the first 10 minutes wandering there alone. But things changed in an instant: suddenly I remembered how good it feels when you don't need to negotiate what to do next. And the freedom of taking a very silly path while exploring a new place.
So first I went to the main platform to take the picture everyone takes. It was just marvelous to see such a huge and beautiful waterfall in action - Kuang Si was definitely worth my day. Then I headed down the path of the waterfall to check out the smaller pools. But then I thought - "you should go up first". And I just switched up without thinking twice, and only later I realized I had left the main swimming pool and the refuge for beards behind and unexplored.
But I was focused and I had no one around who could argue against me, so I went up, up, up - probably the hardest hike up I've done in Laos and in the entire trip. I made the big mistake to wear flip flops and I could see the French tourist looks of disapproval. I saw people in the middle of the waterfall from downstairs, but I couldn't find my way to the pool. And again, I only understood I had missed it when I arrived at the top and look down at them.
I wandered around on my own, watching the groups having their meals in the picnic tables scattered on the top of the waterfall. They were laughing and chatting and I felt out of place. But then something awesome happened: I saw a sign advertising a short bamboo boat trip to the source of the waterfall for 10.000 KIP. I was hesitant, but then I saw the bamboo boat, and I was instantly sold: basically the boat is half underwater and half above water. So I asked the driver how many people were needed for a trip, he said he was happy to take me alone. And off we went, to a 15-minute ride to see where the Kuang Si waterfall starts!
It was truly amazing to see how clear the water was and also to admire the driving technique: he wasn't rowing, but pushing the boat with a long stick and using the floor or the roots of the trees to push the boat further. He was a sweet fellow with probably the most Zen job in Laos.
That short ride was basically the best 10.000 KIP I invested in my stay in Luang Prabang. Once again on land, I kept making pictures of the waterfall from above and I went down from the other side looking for the access to the pool. I saw some people approaching the side of the waterfall, but there was a big sign saying that that was a forbidden area. I kept looking and looking and at some point, I was back downstairs.
I couldn't believe this shit: downstairs on the main bridge you are not supposed to swim and upstairs you couldn't find the way to the swimming area? I had still one hour until I had to return to the van and I was NOT going back home without swimming in that enchanting waterfall. So I went up again, and after asking a few people I realized that in order to go to the pool in the middle of the waterfall, you had to trespass into the forbidden area.
Easier said than done: after trespassing, the only way to keep going was to hold yourself to lianas and pray you wouldn't fall and die. I have vertigo, but I was also determined. So without giving me too much time to think it through, I followed the crowd and pass the first test, only to be faced with the waterfall. One had to go through it, get soaked wet and be thankful not to slip down, because the floor was incredibly slippery. I finally went through all of it and I got my reward: the waterfall got even more magical from the middle. The angle to check below was perfect and looking up was breathtaking.
By now I had only half an hour left and I had to be back to the van. I got all wet trying to go back to the official path again, and this time going down with the flip flops was a nightmare. I feared even more for my life, but slowly and sitting down on the ground to not to fall, I made it downstairs with my shorts covered in mud. I had still 15 minutes to go and I remembered I hadn't gone all the way down of the waterfall, so I decided to make the best of my time.
And that's when I realized that there was no need to risk my life to actually swim in one of the pools: the main ones were at the bottom of the waterfall... I rushed down to make as many pictures as possible, feeling stupid, and then, with only 7 minutes to go, I found the bears. Well, the Rescue Center where Asian black bears are taken good care of after being fred from bear bile farms. With the 5 minutes I had left I took a couple of pictures and got very angry for not having visited the Kuang Si Waterfalls on my own, at my own pace.
I ran back to the parking area, only to find everyone waiting not for me, but for the driver. And that's why, ladies and gentlemen, I'm always late. I could have had a few more minutes with the adorable bears and given a donation!
In any case, in the van on the way back I was smiling and thinking: half of what I had experienced wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been exploring on my own. Just because nobody in his or her sane mind would have agreed on such a stupid itinerary, I know - but it was just awesome!
I spent the last day in Luang Prabang and in Laos having a breakfast of champions in the market, made by an amazing lady that smiles all the time and packs avocado, tuna, and salad in a baguette like a wrestler. After that, I went up to the Phousi Temple on top of the main hill in Luang Prabang. We had tried on our first afternoon to go up, but the 20.000 KIP entrance felt a bit too much. On my way back the day before from the Kuang Si Waterfalls I had seen it from the distance and I knew I couldn't miss it.
I was hesitant they would let me in, because I was wearing shorts, but it didn't seem to be a problem. Going up takes quite some stairs, but after a week of steep trekking activities, it felt like nothing. Once up, the views were indeed incredible: most people choose sunset to visit Phousi, but if you want to avoid the crowds then morning, midday and early afternoon are the best times to go.
The best part was to discover that there's more than views and sunset to enjoy: actually, Phousi is more like a park and on the back side there's plenty of Buddhas scattered around and even a room where the imprint of Buddha's foot shows on the ground. A pretty scary footprint, actually!
On my way out I found the alley where you can access the temple - park without paying: you end up going out from an alley near the Novelty Café and there's nothing or nobody blocking the door. You just need to enter and pass the temple, to your right you find the stairs to go up.
Cihan had spent the morning working at Novelty Café and that's where I joined him. There I could exchange my books for some new reads! At 17h we were ready to catch our bus to Chiang Rai: 16 hours of sitting and sleeping in the bus were ahead and we still didn't know what was coming to us... What we can tell you is that the most impressive border crossing buildings we've seen so far are in Laos, and they are also the most exhausting ones to go through!
There were a couple of things we didn't do in Laos and in Luang Prabang that are musts but we decided against for different reasons:
- The alms ceremony. I'm not gonna lie here: we mostly didn't do it because it happens daily at 5:30h and we weren't so motivated to wake up so early. But also because we read a couple of reports of tourists spoiling the ceremony by misbehaving, dressing improperly or accidentally giving monks food gone bad, because they bought it from not so nice tour operators. In our hotel and in the streets of Luang Prabang there were signs asking for respect to the ceremony, and somehow it turned us off.
- Riding elephants. Everywhere you looked around in Luang Prabang, there was advertisement of tours to feed, bath and ride elephants. You can learn the art of giving them orders and every tour claims they help preserve the elephants. But I was not truly convinced.
I checked a couple of tours that explicitly said that there was no riding in the program, but those started at 79$ for a half day. In the end, I decided that every tour was actually making money through the elephants and the best I could do is not going for any. It burnt, because I've never been near an elephant and I'd love to see them up close, but I guess I will wait until I find a tour or place that allows just to be around them, like in a reserve, or until I make it to Africa to see them roaming free. I hope they are not extinct by then...
- Trekking tour for 2-3 days. It's the highlight for most in Laos and maybe it's the activity I regret the most not having done. We just didn't find the place and time to do it and we really wanted to reach Chiang Mai early in February, so we didn't have to deal for too long with the burning season in the north of Thailand. Here you can find an article on why you should avoid Chiang Mai between the end of February and the beginning of April. I hope to maybe go for a trekking tour in Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai!
All in all, Laos was a very positive surprise: the pace is slow, people let you be, the prices are moderate and the quality of the experiences are just great. We missed highlights like Pakse, the 4.000 Islands and the Bolaven Plateau - basically, we didn't do the south of Laos. But that's a very good reason to go back to Laos whenever the opportunity comes!