As previously mentioned our first order of adventure inside Laos was to set sail on our two day boat ride down the Mekong and so we were headed over to the docks only a twenty minute car ride from the border after a very smooth and efficient Laos border entry process.
We boarded one of the many wooden long boats docked up along the Mekong’s bank and we were pleasantly surprised to find only six other travelers plus us aboard the wooden long boat built to carry at least fifty persons plus.
Our shipmates included a very nice New Zealand couple with their two twelve year old twin daughters and a Dutch couple that have been travelling Asia by bicycle for the past month. We were soon off chugging down the Mekong river very happy with our self purchased Christmas present boat trip.
The Mekong is a powerful river with currents churning constantly and our captain need be aware at all times of rocks, debris and current changes that have apparently sunken boats here before.
The ride down the river as a passenger was relaxing and peaceful.
We spied many small villages sitting along the rivers banks.
The weather was a little cloudy and at one point the rain came hard enough that the boat crew closed down the tarps to keep us dry and to protect the soft teak wood of the ships décor. Late into the morning we stopped at one small village to explore and were welcomed by the local salesman.
The children swarmed us upon landing offering for sale wrist bands and trinkets that they have made. As we walked throughout the village our guide mentions that many of the villagers will spend their entire lives here in this tiny community.
There were young girls maybe 14, 15, 16 years old with babies tied to their hips and our guide informs us that these young ladies start having children at as early as 14 years old. Apparently also it was common for the men to procreate with many different women within the village.
Jumping back aboard Naggi we continued down river and a delicious hot lunch of chicken, rice, curry and soup was served.
We arrived at the halfway point of Pak Beng for the nights stopover and as part of the tour package we were reserved a comfy bungalow over looking the Mekong for the night.
Our shipmates all agreed a Christmas dinner was in order and so sporting our Christmas hats that the hotel provided us with we enjoyed an Indian themed curry filled Christmas dinner for eight.
The young New Zealand girls were very thoughtful and bought the Dutch couple and us a few small Christmas gifts so that we all had something to open with them and their family after we finished diner. We enjoyed the thoughtful gift and the company of our Christmas 2015 shipmates.
Following morning we woke very early well before the sunrise to be exact to make allowance for the fourteen hour time difference so that we could make Christmas phone calls back home to family.
After hearing familiar voices we could conclude all family was well back in Canada. They took turns bragging about how good the turkey was before we signed off and went to our breakfast. Our boxing day breakfast offerings were cold scrambled eggs and stale bread that we downed quickly while pretending it was a hot gravy covered turkey sandwich like the one they were all bragging about . After finishing our dreary breakfast we returned back to the pier to board Naggi for day two.
Same as yesterday we passed many small villages along the way and plenty of other long boats heading up and down stream.
Another delicious hot meal was served aboard Naggi before we arrived at the Buddha cave.
This cave claims to home over 4000 Buddha’s all delivered here by the Laos people to honor the memory of a king and queen that took refuge here to survive during a war period.
After Buddha cave we were not far from the port city of Luang Prabang and our first stop into Laos.
With destination Luang Prabang achieved we were off on foot from the dock to find accommodations. It seemed today tho the majority of the eight or nine places we tried were already booked full so we kept on bouncing up and down the streets knocking on hotel doors. We eventually stumbled upon a small homestay hotel that is basically four simple hotel like rooms in the back of what used to be this mans house now turned income source – $18cdn/night.
The buildings around downtown Luang Prabang have a very french colonial design and feel. With corner coffee shops, french bakeries and heaps of cheap street food stalls serving up large fresh and tasty baguette sandwiches and pastries. I really enjoy fresh breads and was happy to see the french had left something behind when the abandoned Laos after many years of military occupation and attacks during the 1940’s through until 1970’s.
Luang Prabang is fairly small with only 50,000 residents but had a large number of tourists buzzing about during the day and at night many of the restaurants were almost full with the towns swell of travellers. We also became millionaires for the very first time in our lives. Unfortunately this means we have to again learn to convert money in our heads so we can quickly figure out what the actual price of things are. Our hotel room costs 90,000 kip divide that by 5,500 kip per $1cdn. and you get your answer or you’re standing there in the doorway of the hotel puzzled scratching your brain for the answer. Luckily my man upstairs process numbers fairly easily but it always takes a little practice and a few days in any new country to acclimatize to the new currency.
We only wanted to spend a couple of days in Luang Prabang and did hear that there were many elephant camps to visit and to ride elephants at so we looked into it. If I remember correctly it cost us $60cdn each to visit the elephants and the popular Kouang Si waterfalls all in the same day so we decided to take the trip.
We arrived a the elephant camp the next day after a one hour long bumpy ride through towns outskirts and on into the remote dusty jungle roads. The elephants didn’t appear to be mistreated and they seemed to be clean and well kept. They were a little intimidating with their size I wondered if they would of still rather been logging in the jungle as this is where they came from or if they would rather be tooting the banana pancake tourists around… Probably neither I suppose.
Without much time between tour groups we were perched atop an elephant in a wicker basket type seat. For good measures they threw the extra leftover tourist on the head of our elephant and we all began to trek off towards the jungle.
The ride lasted about twenty minutes and we just walked a well worn loop through the trees not far from the camp itself, nothing special. Once arriving back to elephant camp many of the other members of our group had signed up for a boat trip across the river and to my surprise I was the only one that skipped the boat ride and checked the swim with elephants box on the sign up form… So with the basket chair removed I was instructed to climb aboard the massive yet gentle 43 year old female elephant.
Of course this at first gets your heart moving a little and with small butterflies in my stomach I crawled my way atop her front shoulders. As she slowly moved forward and down towards the stairs I could feel her immense power and strength beneath me.
I would bounce up and down slowly as she slowly strolled her way towards the stairs. Going down the hill towards the river was challenging with no saddle, seat or anything to hang onto I needed to squeeze my legs tightly behind the old girls ears to save from falling off. When we reached the water it was pure fun and games and I could tell she really liked being in the river.
The elephant trainer started shouting commands to the elephant and before I knew it the big girl started rocking back and fourth sharply trying to playfully throw me off her back into the river. Of course it wasn’t more then a couple of shakes and I was at the bottom of the Mekong.
We repeated this game one more time before it was clear that bucking elephant riding just isn’t my sport.
The way back up the hill on top of a slippery wet elephant was even more of a challenge.
After my swim the fed us a nice hot lunch and we were set free for a few minutes to feed the elephants bananas.
Jenn would say this was defiantly the highlight of her day and we laughed when the elephants stuck their thick long strong trunks out towards us while making vacuum sucking sounds with it. They would grab the bananas with their trunks and then shovel it into their mouth. It is all quite comical and we had more fun feeding the elephants then the basket ride itself.
Apparently there are many different elephant camps in this area of Laos and each camp can customize your interaction to suite your needs. I really enjoyed our swim.
After lunch and play we were stuffed back into our 15 passenger van and took the rather long two hour same bumpy ride over to the popular Kouang Si waterfalls. Along the way we stopped at a local liquor tasting location. They were giving away small samples of the local rice whisky called Lao-Lao and without hesitation my little whisky sweet tooth girlfriend was testing one out.
I tried to get her to try the stiffer cocktails but apparently we didn’t have any of the symptoms, sicknesses or diseases that these witches and wizards potions could cure.
After the 2 hour ride we arrived to Kouang Si falls. The group was instructed to meet back in 2 hours and off we went.
At the start of the Kouang Si park is a small black bear refugee camp with a few black bears hanging around.
We walked further back into the small park and came onto turquoise blue pools below small falls.
At the back of the park is the large impressive Kouang Si fall. After this you can choose to hike the very steep straight up hill for over 20 minutes climb to the top of the falls and of course Jenn wanted to go so up, up, up we went.
Arriving at the top after the very hot and steep climb we didn’t really find much of anything interesting besides a few more small gentle pools before heading back down the now even more slippery steep decent. We managed to not wipe out to bad on the way down but more then one little slip and fall did occur. We arrived in one piece back to the parking lot and enjoyed a well deserved cold beer and Jenn scored a big ass coconut.
Following day we were blasting out of Luang Prabang on route to the famous party stopover of Vang Vieng where river tube floating and other water follies take place.
We booked onto a “mini bus” through one of the booking agents downtown Luang Prabang. We chose the mini bus because it looked comfortable enough to transport us the 7 hours down the very twisty mountain roads that connect southwest Laos to all areas to the southeast. The bus we paid for and were shown a picture off was not the same bus we were now standing in front of and being ushered onto. It was filling very quickly. This bus was oversold and two of the buses twentyseven occupants were made to sit basically on the floor. The bus trip was super slow going and at times we were barely chugging along making our way slowly up the steep mountain roads.
After a couple of hours we stopped for a washroom break and that’s when a couple of people started bitching about their seats and how small and crowded the bus was. The bus operators basically didn’t understand english but probably wouldn’t of given a shit anyways. Again after a few more hours into the eight hour trek we stopped this time for lunch at a roadside bus stop diner.
At the midday bus stop sadly no sandwiches were on offer but instead a completely undefinable plate of chopped meat parts in a mystery sauce served on white rice was the only choice. It was absolutely necessary to chew slowly and softly so to not chip or crack a tooth when your jaw slams down on the one of many bones that is served mixed in with the chopped meat. It’s defiantly not as food friendly here compared with Thailand and we are already missing the Thai dishes. After lunch the couple that had been ridding the floor most of the way decided to bail and started off down the road hitchhiking the last 75 kilometers a bit pissed and I did feel bad for them. Eventually after a very long ride we pulled into busy little Vang Vieng.
As it was only two days before new years eve the little party known backpacker haunt was already filling up fast. We spent an hour walking in and out of hotels being told “full full”. We did manage to find a good room for $120,000kip ($22cdn) and booked in for four nights so that we weren’t travelling anymore over new years.
Vang Vieng was exactly what we expected it to be a backpacker layover loaded with weary travellers sipping beers and watching friends reruns on the restaurant televisions. The Banana pancake trail leads backpackers along the same well worn path and with Vang Viengs reputation as a “happy place” the little town was busy. By referring to Vang Vieng as a “happy place” I mean drugs seem to be available throughout town. Although available I am almost certain that drugs are still illegal here and I would not want to find out what would happen to a person if caught using them. As we walked along the streets we would see signs and restaurant menus offering “happy shakes” (magic mushroom & marijuana milkshakes) or “happy pizzas” etc, etc.. we could now see why Vang Vieng has a party reputation.
There are many other things to do around Vang Vieng besides getting stoned and most of the cheap fun was had just lazing around by the river or grabbing an inner tube and floating the calm cool waters of the Nam Song river.
We wanted to do a little walking after the previous days long seven hour bus ride so we took a short hike up to a nearby mountain top to have a look at town from above.
The climb was actually a very steep and rocky ascent with some caves to explore along the way.
Arriving at the top perched upon a small landing area we had great views of Vang Vieng below.
With hot air balloons sailing off in the distance the view was picturesque.
At night we would relax during dinner with a cold beer and entertained ourselves by watching the young twenty year olds staggering around town chasing happy pizzas and shakes with smiles of success on their faces.
New years eve day we booked into a small river tour that included a water cave experience . We arrived with our group at the nearby cave to find the place already jammed packed with other tourists.
After waiting over one hour we were plunked into a tube and directed to follow the herd into the dark cave.
We pulled ourselves along a rope and with the other hundred plus tourists and made our way deeper and deeper into the dark black cave. The cave eventually came to an end and we back tracked our way back out.
After lunch we went onto the second part of the river excursion which was a kayak ride down stream.
The paddle down the Nam Song river was relaxing and peaceful although the river was busy with many other paddlers.
Arriving back to town we made plans with our new paddling friends to meet up later that night for dinner/drinks and to bring in new years 2016. Our group of new friends included a couple from France and a couple from the U.K. and together we enjoyed a nice meal before heading out for drinks. The French couple had their eye on one specific bar and once we settled into a table we found out why. The bar maid dropped off a menu that included everything from beer, vodka, Lao Lao whisky, happy shakes, marijuana joints and opium cigarettes. Everything was for sale here in Vang Vieng and if you wanted to mess up your brain Vang Vieng was the place.
The stroke of midnight arrived and we brought in the 2016 new year new friends and a good party.
With not much else to do in Vang Vieng besides chill, swim and eat we decided to move on towards the countries capital city of Vientiane where we will spend three days while our Vietnam visas are prepared.
Because it is mandatory to have a prearranged visa for Vietnam before arrival we must seek out the Vietnam embassy in Vientiane to get this done. After another twisty road bus ride to Vientiane we found ourselves in the big city.
As mentioned the reason we came here was to organize our visas so after finding a hotel we proceeded to walk over to the Vietnam embassy to drop off our passports and wait out the three days until they are complete.
This cement archway called the Patuxai which translates to Victory gate is located just down the road from the Vietnam embassy and was built between 1957 and 1968 using money donated by the United States. The money and concrete was donated by the United States to be used to build a new airport in Vientiane but instead the Laotian government constructed the Patuxai in memory of the Laotian soldiers that died during WW2 and from the independence war from France in 1949. I can imagine this must have ruffled a few feathers with the Americans that had other plans for their dollars.
Nothing else of great interest happened during our time in Vientiane and after walking about taking a few pictures we would basically eat, sleep, repeat until our visas were ready. After the three days we paid $45usd p/p to pick up our passports with our new shiny Vietnam visa stickers.
With Vietnam visas in hand we headed back to the bus station where we booked the next bus down the road to Thakhek. We bought tickets for the next departing bus expecting it to be the usual sitting bus but once we boarded we were surprised to see only small bed like compartments to sit upon.
Like most things here in Asia these beds were designed with the average five foot five inch tall person in mind so you can imagine my discomfort trying to squish my six foot plus tall frame onto the small bed.
With nowhere else to go and nothing better to do we had a laugh and rolled on down the broken concrete highway for the next nine hours hot cramped and with a very sore ass from the one inch foam cushion squished under our butts.
If these beds were made for sleeping on then that was just hilarious because in Laos whenever one vehicle overtakes another the driver slams on the horn. We cannot understand why every vehicle needs to know that they are being passed and the horn is used hundreds of times an hour…it is ridiculous!! Imagine you are in your car and every time a car passes you they lay on the horn to tell you that they are passing?!? To top this off the buses drive faster then the motorbikes so we are passing hundreds of motorbikes every hour and with each pass the horn is blasted making sleeping on the “sleeping bus” a joke!
The joke actually gets worse tho because if by some stroke of luck you do manage to doze off between horn blasts it isn’t long before the bus makes a stop and is boarded by screaming women yelling at the top of their lungs trying to sell chicken, drinks, cookies and whatever other crap they can carry with them onto our bus. This happens about every twenty minutes or so and completely cancels out any possibility of a nap.
We eventually arrived at Thakhek exhausted, hot and hungry. Fortunately we stumbled into the right restaurant and got lucky with some tasty food (not always the case in Laos) before hunting down a cheap room to crash in for the night.
We have come to Thakhek to rent a motorcycle to ride the popular “loop” so the following day we checked around a few bike shops looking for a motorcycle to rent. After looking around we found a shop owned by a German expat that we could rent a Honda crf250 from. Unfortunately the bike rental was double the price per day compared to the same bike we rented back in Thailand last month. Apparently when a motorcycle is imported into Laos the government charges a 100% tax of the bikes value so the little Honda which sells for about $3,500usd cost $7,000usd to import into the country. We returned to the bike shop the next day to pick up our bike and at $50cdn a day we decided to do the loop in only three days instead of the recommended five days.
We have read that picking a trustworthy bike shop in Thakhek to rent from is very important. It is well documented online that some of the bike shops will rent you a bike and include a lock for you to lock it up with at night but then they will have someone follow you with the locks spare key and steal the bike while you sleep. This means you would have to pay the entire replacement cost of the bike. Trust me you don’t want this to happen because after enquiring about the replacement cost of the bike the shop owner showed me the contract which stated I would have to pay $6,500usd to replace this five year old worn out bike that without a doubt would only sell for maybe $2,000. We could now see why this is such a popular scam and left the shop nervously promising ourselves not to let this bike out of our sights.
We blasted off heading east along the “loop” on smooth paved roads and snapped a few photos of the landscapes and local homes as we rolled along.
There were some wetlands to stop and look at but other then this it was a pretty uneventful ride until we came upon this guy…..
At first glance it appeared to be just another way for a local to transport his dinner only after the hog begun to kick and buck under the pressure of the ropes did we realize that the pig was still very much alive and was being taken for possibly the last ride of his life!
After a couple of hours the pavement ended and we found ourselves riding along a dusty loose dirt road under construction. As we continued along the tricky loose dirt surface we passed other tourists riding rented scooters bearing fresh cuts and scrapes from crashing their under prepared scooters that had no business being on these loose gravel roads.
We pressed on and after five hours riding we arrived into the small tobacco farming town of Kong Lor.
Kong Lor is they main reason why people ride this loop because at the end of the road is a 7.5km long cave with a river running thru it. Tourists can hire a boat and driver to take them thru to the other side of the cave and back so the following day we did just that.
For about $20.00cdn we had a boat and guide hired and set off into the darkness of the cave with only a head lamp to light the way. The cave was refreshingly damp and cool with a shallow river to float upon.
After a short distance into the cave we came to a stop where we were instructed to exit the boat and walk along a lit path while our guide carried on up river without us. We were told to follow the path and that he would meet us at the other end. We followed these instructions and found ourselves walking the path admiring the rock formations inside the cave while our boatman waited for us at the other end.
The ride up river lasted about 30 minutes and after 7.5km we reached the other side greeted by a herd of water buffalo keeping cool along the rivers banks.
We took a twenty minute break to grab a drink, relax and admire the efforts of a local woman weaving textiles before boarding the boat heading back thru the cave.
On the third day we jumped back on the bike and blasted back to Thakhek happy that we hadn’t fallen victim to the bike theft scam.
Leaving Thakhek the next morning for the city of Pakse was fairly straight forward from the Thakhek bus station and after another dusty dirty ride we arrived in Pakse.
Pakse was only an overnight destination and we would continue on the following day to the 4,000 islands to relax on the islands of Don Khon and Don Det while we wait for our Vietnam visa entry dates to arrive. From Pakse we boarded a mini bus that would take us to Nakasong where the pier is located where travelers catch boats to the islands.
We boarded a small wooden boat with other travellers and proceeded down the calm river towards Don Khon.
Arriving at Don Khon we found a very quiet island with a couple dozen bungalows and a handful of restaurants on offer. Besides eating, sleeping, repeating there is nothing much else to do.
One afternoon we rented bikes and did a full loop of the island which didn’t take more then a few hours to do a little sightseeing.
There is apparently fresh water dolphins towards the south end of the islands river but also heard seeing one of these allusive creatures was almost impossible this time of year so we didn’t bother dropping the cash on a dolphin sightseeing trip.
We did find a few rivers and small waterfalls and although the bike ride was relaxing we were already finding the island just too small for us and after only three days on Don Khon we were planning our escape over to Don Det in the morning.
We enjoyed one more sunset before island hopping the next morning.
Don Det has a reputation to be a bit of a backpackers island and so we decided to see if it had some more life to offer us. The two islands are attached by a bridge so for $6.00 we hired a moto taxi and took the short drive over to Don Det.
On Don Det there are two distinct sides of the island to stay on defined as the sunrise and sunset sides. We decided to stay on the sunset side mostly because it is supposed to be cooler here during the daytime and with the current temperatures averaging between of 37 and 40 degrees celsius every degree matters.
We settled into a $20.00 bungalow for the night and went off to explore the island. Don Det was certainly more alive then Don Khon with boat loads of backpackers coming and going frequently the place had a pulse.
After wandering around for only a short time we recognized that Don Det also shared a common theme with Vang Vieng. Friends reruns were blasting from every restaurant t.v. and the smell of marijuana lingered in the air.
Bars named “Happy bar” summed up the islands vibe and many restaurant menus included happy shakes for sale.
We had nowhere to go until our Vietnam visas were valid so with nothing much to do on Don Det we retreated to our hammocks after our daily peddle bike ride around the island.
One afternoon we discovered Sunset bar which was a great place to hangout and watch the sunsets.
The Sunset bar owner was Laotian but he’d hired a French Canadian guy to help him run his bar named Keppy and we hung out with Keppy a few afternoons in the bar watching him do his wood carvings.
One particular afternoon Keppy was busy carving when a very “hopped up” Laotian guy entered the bar and soon proceeded to mess with Keppys carving. Keppy stayed cool and politely asked the man not to touch his work but this did not sit well with the man and he began yelling at Keppy challenging him to a fight. Keppy again kept cool and eventually the man left. After a couple of hours the very inebriated man returned this time wielding a large machete, he was yelling and begun inching closer to Keppy as he slashed at the air with the large knife. Things were very tense and the bar patrons watched cautiously as the events took place. Keppy played super cool now and kept apologizing until the man finally turned tail and left the bar satisfied that he had made his point and shown Keppy that he was the boss on his island.
I mention this story because it is the very first time in over a year and a half that we have witnessed any sort of aggression or attempted violence during our travels and until now we have felt very safe throughout our trip. Fortunately tonight nobody got knifed and the party continued after Keppy went to change his underwear.
During the week we found a cheaper bungalow to rent and for only $9.00cdn/night we moved to the small simple bungalow with the best Indian restaurant right out front our door where I discovered my newest favourite Indian breakfast of chicken murtabak roti and devoured at least one everyday.
The bungalow was very basic with only just a fan, bed and toilet but for $9.00 what would you expect. Speaking of “basic” and “toilet” I should have mentioned the toilet systems here in Asia awhile ago but forgot so now I will introduce you to the common toilet called the “squat” toilet.
To use these uncomfortable beasts you climb on top of the toilet and stand straddling the hole with your feet placed on either side of the toilet and pray that you have the thigh and quad muscles strong enough to keep you upright for the entire performance. I’ll include another photo below so that you get my point and don’t pack bathroom reading material with you on your next Asian trip. Toilet paper however is advised or your left to spray your butthole clean with the bum gun that seems to be the preferred method here.
The week on the island passed and it was time to head onto Vietnam so we jumped a boat to the main land and proceeded back to Pakse to purchase a bus ticket that will carry us across the Laos border into Vietnam.
Back in Pakse we bought our bus ticket and boarded the bus. We then spent the next twelve hours crossing borders and inhaling every damn cigarette the bus driver sucked on until we arrived into Vietnam.
Laos was an experience I don’t think I would rush back to recreate. Although not all bad the country is just nowhere close to my idea of a “great” place to travel…. of course this is just my opinion!
After a very long journey we arrived to Da Nang excited to be out of Laos and into another fresh country to explore. Goodbye Laos…… GOOD MORNING VIETNAM!!