Laos – From Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Jul 31, 2018

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It’s the South East asian country I love the most. Gastronomy may not be as rich as Thai, architecture not as sumptuous as Cambodia, caves not as impressive as in Vietnam. No floating markets either.

Mekong river view, from Luang Prabang.

Laos is all about quietness, about time spent slowly –  you’ll probably look at things and feel them in a way that is different than elsewhere. If ever you book a trip to Laos, don’t get the mistake of trying to see all cities, monuments and attractions in a short period of time – they are not that impressive! What makes it worthwhile is to spend time somewhere – anywhere! Wake up, look at the river (there, most probably be one around), have a slow breakfast, walk a bit. Eventually visit something, lunch, swim and relax. It has nothing to do with a resort beach holiday, where you’ll be flooded with music, alcohol, peer pressure and lots of energies. Here is when your inner energy flows free. Of course there is plenty of cheap alcohol, weed, laughing gas, hallucinogenics, and whatever can conceive to get you high, if that’s your goal. …But I find it mostly to be an introspective high, not an ecstatic one.

From the hammocks in Vang Vieng, to the Balconies in Don Det, it’s all about seeing the world through different eyes, as the water flows.

Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is an open-air sculpture park with giant sculptures of Buddha and Hindu deities, 25km southeast of Vientiane.

Pha That Luang (Golden Stupa) was founded in the 3rd century, but the visible structure was built in 1566 after Vientiane became the capital of Laos. It’s 44 metres tall and the pinnacle is covered in real gold.

You’d probably arrive to Laos through the capital, Vientienne. The two times I’ve been there, I came by train, from Bangkok. The first time, because it was convenient, the second, because it was charming. Unfortunately, the carriages were renewed in between (2016), so no longer wheree the wooden ones, crackling, the open windows… It was, indeed, more comfortable, but the whole point of travelling by train was a bit lost. The trip takes the whole night, so that’s the one you save on a hostel, there is a breakfast served, and you will arrive early morning to Vientiane to explore. Bear in mind that you will have to change train on Nong Khai where you go to immigration and apply to Visa on Arrival. I believe you’d need photos and 35 USD dollars (UE / UK citizens). Bring the exact amount or you will be ripped off in exchange rates. You’ll also purchase the train ticket to Vientiane. You can either go for the 300 baht option (train + minivan) or you pay only 20 and negotiate the transport to the centre (13km away), and costing, probably, 150.

Tumma Sapa buddhist temple, near Pha That Luang.

Vientiane itself is not the most interesting city to stay. Indeed it has a lively night market by the river, one or two rooftop bars with river views, and a few monuments to visit, during the day. Food, if you fancy freshwater fish, steamboat style buffets, and plenty of vegetables, is light and awesome, but sometimes hard to get, due to language barrier. That’s regarding the local restaurants. As for international cuisine, there is plenty of, for all budgets.

Most people rely on tuk-tuks as transport, by my negotiation skills are far from perfect so I always get ripped-off. Besides, there is never one when I really need it. I prefer to rent a motorbike, which I also used for the trip North (Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang). I once committed the mistake of going to Vang Vieng on a cramped, nauseating minivan, which took more time that I did on the bike, despite they were often speeding.

Rice farmers near Vang Vieng.

Not every rental houses do long terms so you’d better ask if they’re ok with that.  Thoroughly test lights and breaks, and ask to have tires changed if they’re already worn out. Also better to take some shots of your bike before you leave the shop (do it in front of staff, so they see you doing it), specially if there is some damage).  This way, you’ll avoid any unnecessary disputes when you return it. I have never had a single issue and rental shops were always friendly and honest, but many internet reports show a different reality.

From Vientienne to Vang Vieng it’s a 3 to 4 hour drive. Do it in the morning, have lunch in between.  Stop at the mountains for a leg stretch and a few shots. There are two initial ways (road 10 and 13). The road 13 is shorter. The 10 is worthwhile if you want to have a look at Nam Ngum Dam, thought you’d join road 13 anyway, for the last (and hilly) part of the trip.

Vang Vieng

You’d probably come across the old airfield first; then you get to one of the main roads in the Villages, which is mainly composed of restaurants, homestays, bars, two or three temples and a few shops.

Vang Vieng countryside, as seen to one of the cave’s entrances, uphill.

Vang Vieng become internationally famous for the tubbing – going down the river on a truck air chamber, stopping in many bars and getting drunk and high along the way.  Some bar featured dare devil jumps into the river and, unsurprisingly, it led to many deaths. Tubing was prohibited and reopened later with many restrictions and reduced number of bars.

It has been declining, as the new wage of Chinese tourists prefers four wheeler drives and programmed touristic activities, over the wild tubing. That changed Vang Vieng and not for the best. Not only hideous, concrete made hotels, popped up; accommodation prices went higher. Night life became predictable and boring (Sakura, as far as I believe is still standing).

Phu Kham Cave. Its park features a fresh water pond, some restaurants and the cave itself. The cave has no light, nor marked trails, and it’s slippery enough. Bring your own torch and appropriate footwear. There are more galleries behind the main one (behind the photorapher, to his right), with relatively easy accesses.

One of the fresh water ponds, near some cave in Vang Vieng.

Caving and hiking (the other main point of interest in the region) was silent, quiet and relaxing. Not it’s noisy and crowded, with endless groups of all-terrain, Mad Max vehicles, flocking  around the dirt roads. Caves are still there, sceneries are still impressive, remote areas are still quiet (these noisy guys tend to be lazy as well) but the overall feeling was gone.  “From Woodstock to Beijing” would be an appropriate title, to recent Vang Vieng history. I went there twice and don’t plan to return.

Vang Vieng countryside.

Luang Prabang

From Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang it’s roughly 5 hours, meaning, in practice, the whole day, riding along the mountains and valleys. The experience is enjoyable, if you are skilled enough, but always beware of the mad minivan drivers.

Later, as you arrive to Ban Pha Tang Village, you can stop and enjoy the view from the bridge.

Shortly after the beginning of your trip, as the road distances from the river, you’ll find a restaurant area, also selling wild animals (I believe, for food). People don’t like pictures, there, but you’ll certainly collect unique memories. Once, I stopped for a fish soup which was remarkably good.

You’ll probably be a bit tired when arriving to Viewpoint Col, in the border between Vientiane and Luang Prabang province. It is a must stop, even if only for a cup of tea.

Lazy afternoon at Utopia bar, Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is the most charming city in Laos, with his colonial architecture, golden temples, esplanades by the rivers and nearby attractions.

I was fortunate enough to visit it during Loi Krathong festival – the 11th full moon of the year (usually around October-November), marking the end of the Buddhist lent three month retreat. It is celebrated with a procession of paper made boats and candles, from the main temples, until the river, where these are release to float downstream. People also release the Krathongs (floating offerings  based on a cross-section of a banana tree trunk, which is then elaborately decorated with banana leaves, flowers and incense) so the Mekong river becomes full of lights.

Watch the Loi Krathong images, below:

In the city, monks decorate their temples with colourful paper lanterns and bang their drums, during the evening procession.

On that period, in the nearby villages close to the Nam Khan river,  there are Bun Nam boat races which are funny to watch, not only for the races themselves, but by the whole show which people put around for attending it.

Don’t forget to attend, at least once, the alms giving, where the villagers, on their best dresses, line on sidewalks, expecting the monks to arrive, at sunrise, so they receive rice, food and money offers.

Mount Phousi is also worth a visit, if not for the temples, at least for the view:

Luang Prabang has some temples worth visiting, namely the Royal Temple Museum (formerly the Royal palace) and Wat Xieng Thong,

Haw Pha Bang Temple among the night market parasols.

If you have the time, visit Kuang Si / Xi Falls, which are  -29 km  south of Luang Prabang. They are 60 metres fall in total, have different stages where people can bath (and even boat ride). Refreshing and beautiful.

At the time, I was lured into visiting Elephant Village (Ban Xieng Lom). The river view was nice, but just the visit itself was pricing (no elephant ride) and, honestly, I’ve seen better sceneries with elephants, for free.

Young elephant, caged to be tamed. Despite understanding that it’s part of South East Asia tradition to use elephants for riding and working, I still fell sorry for the animal. I believe Westerners do the same, or worse, with horses. Tried not to be too judgemental,

Pak Ou Caves are another popular destination, 25km North of Luang Prabang, where Nam Ou river joins the Mekong. There is a considerable part of dirt road to reach it (8km if I remember correctly) so beware it you’re doing it on the rainy season. There are a few restaurants there and you’ll have to cross the river on a hired, long, sampan boat. These are not overly stable, so watch your movements, specially going in and out.

The caves spread along two stages, first one with the famous Buddha statues, and the second, wider and darker. Bring your own torch!

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