Lao It Fam: A Week in Laos

The original plan for Laos was to spend a night in Vientiane, and split the rest of the time between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Travelling means your original itinerary becomes null and void, and we ended up with two nights in Vang Vieng and five in Luang Prabang. I would now do things differently – one night in Vientiane, two or three in Vang Vieng and three in Luang Prabang. 

We took the journey up to Vang Vieng straight from Vientiane airport by minibus. The minibus was an interesting adventure – we were stuffed into a tiny bus with sandbags on the floor and the back seats filled with boxes. Our journey stopped at every point someone wanted to buy fruit or baguettes from roadside sellers.

After a little over four hours, an English speaking Lao guy told us we had arrived at our stop. Rain was falling heavily and we were in a muddy open field. Aside from the bad karaoke emanating from a nearby bar, it seemed nothing like the party town I anticipated.

“Are you sure this is Vang Vieng?” Alessio asked.

“No, I’m not.”

“Maybe they just dropped us here for a joke.”

We walked across the sodden field and asked around for our guesthouse. The locals gave directions, but we feared they were just saying anything as not to ‘lose face’.

Our fears were set aside when we saw the bright yellow sign of our guesthouse. The buzzing restaurant was very welcome to us after ten hours without food, so we took our keys from the easygoing Canadian host, Amber and set down our bags.

Alessio looked around our room.

Look at the kiddy blankets!

This is backpacking.”

Two mattresses and a table in a small hut. The night before we had been sleeping in an airport again. Anything was better than that.

The morning followed a night of heavy heavy rain that had followed us from Chiang Mai – and probably London. We were undeterred from our mission – to swim in the Blue Lagoon. We sent our muddy clothes to the guesthouse laundry and hired a bike for almost double the cost of the bike in Chiang Mai and headed for the dirt tracks and wood bridges. 

An unfriendly group of Dutch tourists mocked our wrong turn and our lack of the apparently essential app Maps.Me. When asked how long they’d stay, the response was “Well, it doesn’t matter.” Icy.

Luckily, we found two friendly American cyclists on the way who were heading to the lagoon too and we travelled with them in the rain towards our destination.

The Blue Lagoon is a natural blue water lagoon pool, deep enough for weak swimmers to require life vests. There are swings, slides and branches to dive from. It is great fun, even on a rainy day. Entrance is 10,000 kip plus 10,000 for the slides and another 10,000 for the life vests.

Nearby is a little food joint where we indulged our need for pizza and hammocks. The pizza is pretty average and aroun 65,000 kip for a margherita

The skies cleared as we headed back to the town, giving a dry run through small villages full of children playing and yelling “sabaidee!”

In the evening, we met a group from our guesthouse – a motley crew of Canadians, Canadian-Italians, Northern Irish, Swedish and Australians and we headed out to the Smile Bar with them for beers and a beautiful sunset. 

And what a beautiful sunset it was. I chatted with a German photographer, with Canadians about religion, life, kindness and politics and watched two drunks kiss. Later, we headed to the popular Gary’s Irish Bar for live music and met a Chicago girl and a Northern lass who teach in Korea.

The Vang Vieng evening was such a lovely, chilled one and staying in a cosy and friendly guesthouse meant we met so many great people to chat with. Our time in Vang Vieng would end the next day after a stroll around the town.

It is often said, but it bears repeating. The bus to Luang Prabang is… shocking. We booked a minibus through our hotel for 80,000 kip. The minibus seems comfortable and we had our own space. The air conditioning was adequate. The roads however were deathly. On one stretch I became distracted with my phone and the car bounced to the extent where I hit my head off the roof. It took all my strength not to cry. This lasted for almost the entire four/five hour journey to Luang Prabang.

Once there, we took a tuk tuk from the station to our hotel but it dropped us at the Night Market. Tired and weaving through with heavy bags, it was hard to fall in love with the World Heritage City. Beyond the Night Market, the city is quite poorly lit and it took 10 minutes to find the guesthouse. When we finally did, we dropped our bags and made for the recommended Secret Pizza. My newly acquired Maps.Me told me it was a 45 minute walk, but a carb fiend and an Italian can never be put off from good pizza.

The walk was worth it. We met an Italian girl who was also seeking the elusive pizza who we dined with. She was one of the most interesting people I have ever met. She has such amazing values and travel plans, hitchhiking her way around the continent, with the eventual plan to walk from Kathmandu back to Italy. And the perfectly crisp pizza was a great backdrop to our chat.

The following day was a lazy exploration of the city and the Night Market. I have to admit, Luang Prabang is truly beautiful. It’s rich history drips from every building. The French colonial touch is very evident – both in the architecture and sadly the poverty.

… but something was lacking for me. I wanted so badly to love Luang Prabang. The city is more beautiful than I imagined, it is aesthetically stunning. It’s like a resort town. But there is a charm that’s missing. 

I remember reading a blog that described it a bit like Disneyland. It felt to me like that on the surface. Everything focused towards tourists. This is great and enables them to generate money but it lacked a charm for me. Not only this, but the prices were Disneyland prices (cafes and sometimes street food equal to London prices), the food didn’t seem as nice, the hawkers constantly seeing tourists as dollar signs – either for tuk tuks, tours, shop goods or food. It became bothersome to walk down a street, past three or four tuk tuks and be asked the same question. The tourists also seemed disrespectful. I don’t agree with clothing policing but I believe we should respect the clothing rules in the temple as tourists. People still wore shorts and spaghetti straps to the sacred temples, haggling over pennies and the infamous alms ceremony. The alms ceremony is a religious practice for the monks and is very sacred. Tourists seem to go and stick their lenses in the faces of serene monks. We decided to avoid this ceremony as not to contribute to it turning into a tourist attraction and to avoid, as Alessio calls them, “the twats”.

But this is no reason to avoid Luang Prabang. I had a vision it would blow me away beyond belief and I would instantly fall in love. My expectations were too high. It doesn’t change the fact the city is breathtaking in ways I didn’t expect. It is the perfect place to take a few days to relax, stroll, swim by the river and indulge in the pricey but beautiful cafe culture. It is a tiny town and you will see the same friends again and again. We saw our American cyclist friends from Vang Vieng on two separate days, a guy from the Phousi mountain top at the waterfalls, the German photographer from Vang Vieng at the Night Market and a French girl from our waterfalls minibus near the museum.

There are other amazing things I definitely recommend:

We took a minibus for 50,000 kip to Kuang Si falls. This didn’t include the 20,000 kip entry. Kuang Si is majestic, incredible and loud

If you climb to the very top of the falls,  up the nearby dirt hills, you are rewarded with a shallow pool to swim and play in 

And great views

Carry on to the very bottom of the falls and there’s an aquamarine pool for swimming.

This was a great day, but there is so much to do! Our minibus tour only gave us two and a half hours, but we could have stayed for many more hours to see the bear sanctuary, butterfly farm, caves and swim for longer.

Another recommendation is the Uxo visitors centre.

Uxo is unexploded ordinance, and Laos is the country most affected by this. During the Indochinese war, two million tonnes of explosives were dropped onto Laos and many remain unexploded today. What this means is, over 30 decades later, Laos is still feeling the deadly impact of war. Land cannot be used for cultivation because of the risk of UXOs keeping the country in a state of underdevelopment. In rural areas, UXOs continue to take lives and maim. One person is killed by UXOs almost every day – either accidentally, or by digging for them to use and sell as scrap metal. The visitors centre aims to educate visitors on the situation, as well as educating Lao people on the risk. It is extremely informative and a great charity.

Crossing the communist bridge is daring but a lot of fun, and you can return via the 5,000 kip Bamboo Bridge.

And Utopia Bar comes well recommended but for good reason. We put it off because we were trying to keep the costs low, but ended the last night with kips to spare so we headed for a drink and a dinner with a view at Utopia. It is very chilled there, with a nice view – but there is no sunset view and sadly no more board games. Eating and drinking can be done cheaply, so go to wile away the day on the sun deck.

Some other interesting places to view, that we didn’t get to see are the Big Brother Project, which aims to educate and bring Lao language books to people who may not ever even see books. You can spend an evening chatting with locals who wish to learn English.

We did climb Mount Phousi for the sunset, and it was interesting, but by 6pm it gets so crowded that it becomes not worth it. 

Better to catch the sunset from other spots and do Phousi in the day.

So in terms of Luang Prabang, it is a beautiful city, beyond beautiful perhaps. But I found it hard to love this city. Like a handsome but vacant man. There is so much to do in and around the city which is pretty unmissable, but I felt disappointed by its lack of charm. My expectations were too high, and that was my downfall.

My foodie and activity recommendations are as follows:

  1. Secret Pizza is a budget buster, 80,000 kip for a pizza. It is made by a guy from Milan, however, and well worth the trek
  2. Kuang Si falls is also unmissable, as is the Uxo Centre. Strolling around town and just relaxing is also great.
  3. Try some of the cafes. I liked Le Banneton.
  4. Hot Lao Coffee is tasty, and available from the sandwich area of the night market. Other recommendations are the crepes and coconut pancakes.
  5. Head to Dara Market, and just around the corner is a big supermarket with real cheese and some cheaper food options if you’ll be around for a while
  6. Spend a little time strolling and watching the sunset on the river beach but swim at your own discretion!

My disappointments were

  1. The general constant tuk tuk hassling also happens in the sandwich area of the night market. Take a coffee, a crepe and maybe a shake
  2. Mount Phousi sunset. And please don’t buy one of those tiny wicker cages of birds to then release for a picture. It’s horrible.
  3. The night market in general. The food isn’t especially great, and what could be bought at one stall could be bought at many other stalls.
  4. Wat Xieng Thong was opposite our hostel, so we thought the 20,000 kip would be worth it for such a highly recommended temple. For us we could really take it or leave it

In all, I have loved Laos. I have loved the slow and relaxed pace of life. The lush green scenery is like something from National Geographic. I am sure that I will be back to visit. I found the people friendly, and it was with such ease that we met new people with great stories. I would love to explore the villages and the South more. It is a wonderful, interesting country packed with history and politics that oft goes overlooked. I wish I could have fallen in love with Luang Prabang, but the country’s beauty more than makes up for it. And in the end, I know I will really miss being woken up at dawn by the crowing chickens that are absolutely everywhere!

3 thoughts on “Lao It Fam: A Week in Laos

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