We write this post sat by the pool, in a plush hotel in Laos capital city, Vientiane. A far cry from how we started this chapter of our travels. This post covers 2 weeks in Laos, so there’s quite a bit to pack in!
Following a great time in Thailand, we booked a 20hour ‘sleeper’ bus to Laos’ second largest city, Luang Prabang. The journey was reasonably bearable on account we made it on time, but did involve a dodgy, overpacked minibus for 8 hours to the Laos border crossing, a simple visa application form, an overpacked truck ride to a bus station, then a sleeper bus which can only be described as halfway between a dodgy nightclub and a hostel; mainly attributed to the drugs and multi-coloured lighting – with the addition of a few monks, of course. It’s fair to say we didn’t sleep on the ‘sleeper bus’ at all. Laos roads are riddled with pot-holes on dirt tracks which take you up and down mountains at great pace. Luckily we were stocked up on travel sickness tablets and Netflix downloads to last the journey, and barring a few loo stops on the side of the road in the pitch black, no food stops, the druggies next to us who acted like dicks and then thankfully passed out for most of the journey after popping some pills, we finally made it to Luang Prabang bus station at 5am!
Our guesthouse where we would be staying for 3 nights wouldn’t let us check-in till midday so we explored the town and sourced some much needed coffee! Luang Prabang has a very French influence, following several wars and occupations involving the French, and so there are a number of bakeries and coffee shops which serve croissants and baguettes. Walking around and looking at the architecture of the buildings, we had the feeling we could have been in Switzerland. The city is quite small, and is surround by jungle, mountains and the peaceful Mekong river which flows through it.
We slept for most of our first day, but did venture out in the evening to the night market, which absorbs most of the streets. Down a busy alley packed with people, we saw vendors selling all kinds of foods: rats split in half and barbequed, a live duck only a few minutes from being someone’s dinner, a buffet of every noodle dish you could think of, and cute little birds in wooden cages the size of your hand which we later found out are a delicacy to eat. Amongst the chaos, we found somewhere to sit and had some delicious food; Josh had a dish with beef and onion gravy with sticky rice which reminded us of a roast dinner!
During our time in Luang Prabang, we found quite a lot to do. We spent most of one day walking around the city, visiting temples, museums and the grand palace. At the the top of a hill in the centre of Luang Prabang, there is a viewpoint providing stunning views of the city and surrounding areas; slightly ironically, vendors on the way up sell those tiny cute birds in cages to set free at the top – we got the sense that the locals weren’t too concerned with the bird’s freedom. One evening, we went to a storytelling show at a small theatre. Folktales and legends of Luang Prabang were told to us by a local, accompanied by an old man with a traditional Laos instrument, which he played along with the stories. In comparison to everywhere else we’ve been, Luang Prabang is certainly the most laid back city we’ve ever been to.
We made a trip to the ’emerald waterfall’, which was stunning! The limestone from the mountains turns the water turquoise, creating a beautiful image as the sunlight sparkles onto the water through the jungle. We swam in some of the natural pools created by the waterfall which was a magical but a slightly chilly experience.
As we had 2 weeks in Laos, we decided to venture north of Luang Prabang to a village called Nong Khiaw. Again surviving a very bumpy minibus to get there, this was the first place we turned up to with no accomodation booked. As there was no internet or phone service, and relatively few English speakers, we walked around for a bit, before deciding on a guesthouse on the river, which had stunning views of the surrounding mountains and a very comfy bed.
We spent the first day walking around the village getting our bearings and eating some delicious food in places which are more like the family’s living room rather than a restuarant (there was an old lady lying on the floor watching tv in one place, and in another, the father of the family walked back and forth through the ‘restuarant’ in only a towel with soapy hair – clearly part way through a shower we were interrupting). Not to mention the chickens freely walking about the streets along with the cats and dogs.
A search on Tripadvisor showed that the number 1 of 7 things to do in Nong Khiaw was visit the nearby viewpoint. So we packed lots of water and hiked up the 1,400 ft mountain over an hour and a half. At the top, there was an American couple getting married, white dress n all! Although they only had two photographers and no guests; we both had the same thought… our families would kill us if we eloped abroad!
The views at the top were incredible! The 360 degree view is easily the most beautiful place we have seen in our lives. Green mountains covered in jungle dominate the landscape, with Nong Khiaw and a few smaller villages below. After 40 minutes at the top, we decided we should come back again in a few days with some lunch and our books.
The number 2 activity recommended on Tripadvisor was the ‘100 Waterfall Trek’ which was described as walking through the jungle and waterfalls. In a group of 7 fellow travellers, which included a couple from England, although much more our senior, 2 Isrealis and a man from Singapore, we boarded a boat (that’s got to be the start of a good joke right?) which would take us an hour up the Mekong river through breathtaking landscape to a remote village where two tribes live. At the village, after a quick welcome from the ‘Chief’, we set off through the rice fields and beautiful jungle. On our way, our guide told us about the people who live in the village, how they live off the land and made us try a variety of plants in the jungle that they eat.
After a couple of kilometres, we reached the start of the waterfalls, where we would spend the next 2 hours walking and climbing through! It was an amazing experience, being knee-deep in fresh water, making our way upstream till we reached a waterfall with a 30ft drop. Here, we stopped for lunch, where we were treated to fried rice wrapped in banana leaves, and conversated with our companions, exchanging stories of our travels.
Being so close to nature and people who live off the land, with limited electricity, no internet and no shops, it gave us both a lot to think about. Our guide told us about how the jungle was changing; his parents used to reguarly come across tigers and elephants when hunting, but these animals no longer live in this area of Laos due to either poachers or deforestation. He also talked about the impact China is having on Laos. On our journey to Nong Khiaw, we came across a huge damn which China were sponsoring, in return to receive electricty for the next 75 years before Laos can use it. Building the damn has destroyed villages, and stopped cargo and transport along the river between Luang Prabang and towns in the north of Laos. Everywhere we visited in Laos, we saw how quickly investment is changing the landscape of the country. Having lived in London for several years, where outdoor space is limited to a few parks, and pollution is one of the worst in the world, we wanted to metaphorically shake Laos by it’s shoulders to say that developing big houses, flat blocks, shopping centres or fancy hotels will never be as good as having a jungle, mountains, waterfalls and an abundance of animals on your doorstep.
Following another 2 hour trek down the waterfalls, we spent time in the village learning about housing, farming and every day life, before heading down river to a huge cave which tunnels deep into the mountain. The caves in this area were used to shelter villagers from bombing between 1962 and 1975 from the ‘secret war’, which involved a number of countries, but resulted in the US dropping over 2 million tons of bombs over 580,000 bombing missions, making Laos the most bombed country in history.
The next day, still reminicising about how amazing the waterfall trek was, and our sneak peak at remote village life, we decided to head back up to the viewpoint, this time armed with some lunch and our books. Following a much quicker ascent, we once again took in the incredible views, before sitting down to read our books. Over the next hour, we frequently broke from reading to gaze at a mountain. After a while, we laid a blanket across a rock on the edge of the viewpoint, and tucked in to some sandwiches and pringles we had picked up that morning. It was a perfect setting… for a lunch Lu thought, Josh had something else in mind! Once finished, we sat together, admiring the stunning view talking about how beautiful it was and couldn’t help but show our appreciation of how happy we’ve been in the past few years. Josh then asked Lu to close her eyes… when she opened them, there was a ring in a box, in a very shaky hand and Josh asked to spend the rest of their lives together… Lu said YES!!
Following a lot of tears and laughter, some of the remaining people at the viewpoint came over to congratulate us, and as luck would have it, one just happened to be a photographer and had taken photos of the proposal. It was so absolutely perfect in every way that the both of us couldnt have been any happier than in that moment on top of a mountain, feeling on top of the World.
We celebrated that evening by video calling around a lot of family and friends, before heading out for a tasty dinner and a couple of beers. We had fallen in love with Nong Khiaw more than we thought we would, and made some incredible memories here! We had some funny moments at our guesthouse; an overflowing tap and a broken light lead to Josh doing some maintenance in the bathroom with one of the guesthouse owners. Neither spoke the same language, but merrily sawed off some pipes and took the sink to pieces. Our view on living standards must be slipping because we left a 4 start review even after having a powercut, being twice without water, finding 2 ants nests in the bathroom and a centipeed in the bed. When in Laos!
VIENTIANE VIA LUANG PRABANG
Onwards and upwards – we headed to Laos’ capital city via Luang Prabang again for a couple days to relax a bit more. Back in Luang Prabang we had breakfast with an Australian brother and sister who we had recognised from Nong Khiaw. We got to know them well and after a vague acknowledgement we should meet for dinner, by pure coincidence we did bump into them later in town and had that dinner. From Luang Prabang, we got to Vientiane via two buses which included some angry Japanese tourists and an incredibly bumpy 12 hour journey. Our hostel on arrival was a little crap to say the least. As water seaped out of the bedroom wall onto the floor at a noticable rate, the staff mopped it up and smiled. After a nights sleep and thankfully not drowning, we moved to another room which was dry, but smelt like weed. And so after 3 nights there, we have now enjoyed 2 luxury nights in a hotel which would be a solid 4-start hotel in England. We have a pool, a gym, a huge free breakfast and a bedroom which doesn’t smell, doesn’t have bugs and even has a kettle!
During our time in Vientiane, we visited a charity called Cope, which supports the continuing casualties from the ‘secret war’ in Laos. Even now, people are still being killed by unexploded bombs, often set off either due to miss-handling (lack of education means children may dig up cluster bombs and use them for games), cooking on the ground where a bomb is buried, or through the scrap-metal industry. We had never heard about this war at school in the UK, but it was so interesting and shocking what happened. The US government wanted the Laos border closed off, so they bombed them, the US are still one of the few countries to not sign a treaty to not use cluster bombs. The US on average has given $4.9m per year since 1993 to support clearing the unexploded bombs, compared to the $13.3m it spent per day over the 9 years it bombed Laos, dropping on average, a bomb every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years!! How was this allowed?!
After a full day of trekking around Vientiane, we quickly noticed that there wasnt much to see… it has a beautiful sort of replica of the Arc de Triomphe, but thats about it. So we got a bus from the centre and headed out on a 40 minute journey to the outskirts, to the Buddha Park, which is a small park / garden, full of Buddah’s. With the sun shining, flowers blooming and butterflies crossing your path, it was very pretty and idyllic. There was even a hollow concrete dome that you climb up, it had the 3 religious floors representing, hell, fantasy and heaven (which we learnt back from our very first show in Bangkok!). After very small spaces, squeezing through rabbit holes, we got to the top for a bird’s eye view of the park.
Later that evening, on our second day in Vientiane, our paths crossed once again with the Australian brother and sister we had met previously. We took them for dinner at an amazing Vietnamese restuarant we had been to, and also to a local bowling alley we had been to on our first day. We had a great night full of a lot of beer! The bowling alley is incredibly dated, with communist flags flying, bowling alley computers from the 70s and bowling balls with huge dents in – it’s so bad it’s good!
After nursing a hangover, this is when we moved to our ‘luxury’ hotel. There isn’t much to add for the next 48 hours – a cycle of eating, relaxing by the pool and sleeping; a perfect way to end our time in Laos, before fying to Vietnam!