Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

Mekong River Winding Through Vang Vieng

Leaving Vientiane, our final destination was Luang Prabang, but we decided to stop off en route at Vang Vieng. VV is well known as a backpacker haven, attracting the crowds due to drinks, drugs, and a brilliant tubing/pub crawl route. It’s a strange place, because in theory I should hate it – hundreds of early 20s backpackers (making me feel old) getting drunk in one of the many similar bars and restaurants -, but actually it had a charm, with a lovely laid back feel; it lives in its own little bubble, with no relation to the rest of Laos. Plus, Friends was on 24 hours in many of the restaurants, which I loved (Paul, not so much). We ended up spending 4 days in VV, and by the time we left we were ready to escape the madness.

Tubing Down The Mekong On day 1 we got involved in the main attraction – tubing down the Mekong. We hired our tubes from town, jumped in a Tuk Tuk for a 3km ride and were left at the side of the river. Before we started the tubing, we went to a lovely garden bar for our first drink and free shot of Lao Lao Whisky – made from rice, it tastes as horrible as our stuff. It was here we discovered that there were only 4 bars on the river, before a 2 hour ride on the tube all the way into town. Because it’s dry season, what would take 1 hour when the water was high took over 3 hours, and so most people chose to skip the end section and get a Tuk Tuk from the final bar. It was slightly disappointing; although the scenery was beautiful, we did very little actual tubing as the current was so slow, and the water level so low. So while tubing was what everyone came for, it was much more about the pubs…so we got involved in that instead. Hula hooping, basketball under hoses, boules, flaming limbo, cliff jumping, beer pong, and lots and lots of free whisky shots, there was lots of fun to be had.

Kayaking on the Mekong Our second attempt at tubing was slightly more successful, when we signed up for a trip into a cave, on tubes, and then kayaking. After a frustrating 1.5 hour wait while our guides tried to find us head torches (that’s what you get when you go cheapy), we were eventually led into the cave. With ropes to pull yourself along, you go right into the depths of the cave, with only your head torches giving you any light. Add into the mix the fact that the water was absolutely freezing, it was an exhilarating trip.

The afternoon involved as kayaking back into town. Our second attempt of the trip, Paul and I were much more coordinated, and managed to navigate a few rapids without capsizing.

Luang Prabang offered everything VV didn’t: a real taste of Laos culture, temples, architecture, things to do that didn’t involve alcohol, and history. And most importantly, lots of old American tourists to make us feel young again, yay! It’s the little things.

Luang Prabang Market LP was all about the food. Street-side juice bars, baguette stalls, Laotian BBQs you cook at the table yourself, and crepes. Yum yum yum. After the limitations of South America (fried chicken anyone?), it was a welcome change. With this is mind, we spent our first full day doing a Laotian cookery class. First up, we went to the local market to get our produce. Fortunately neither the grilled rats nor dried buffalo skin on display were on the menu. After our tutors demonstrated the dishes, we were set free to do our best. Apart from burning the garlic (many times) and getting our oyster/soy sauces mixed up, we managed to pull together 5 tasty dishes. We were given recipe books to take away and we’ve kept our favourite recipes to try at home.

After all that eating, we had energy to burn, so we hired bikes and cycled out to the Kuang Si waterfalls. These were a beautiful 32km ride away. Apart from the ridiculously steep final 5km, which nearly killed us, there were lovely gentle rolling hills through local villages, and we got out early enough to beat the midday heat. Since arriving in Laos we had seen nothing but blue skies and sunshine, which is lovely, until you want to do anything mildly physical, and then you feel like you’re going to die.

WaterfallOn the walk up to the falls we passed by a Sun Bear sanctuary. Sun Bears are endangered, and the ones we saw had mostly been saved from poachers (who want their bile for Chinese medicine) or from dancing in the streets. Safe to say they looked like they were enjoying life now, lounging in hammocks in the sun.

The falls themselves were beautiful, with cloudy blue water and lots of natural pools. Before jumping in for a swim, we clambered up to the top, where you can stand at the lip and look down. It was a little bit daunting trying to get your footing on the slippery rocks, knowing that there was a sharp 60 foot drop if things went wrong.

What started off as a brilliant day took a horrible turn of events when we saw a young Korean man drown. In one of the pools there was a rope swing which everyone was jumping in from. What happened exactly remains unclear, but standing waiting for our turn, we noticed a distressed Korean guy in the water – we now know he was looking for his friend. The language barrier was a massive problem, and though a group of us jumped in to try and help find the man, it was no good. Visibility was non-existent, the water was freezing, and none of us were entirely sure what or who we were looking for. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the man’s tour group were filming the incident or taking photos, with only one lady showing any signs of distress. After around 20 minutes of uncertainty, locals with a diving mask eventually pulled out the body. Throughout this, tour groups were arriving, unaware of what had happened and were trying to get in the water. One older lady in a tour group by us, despite being informed that she couldn’t swim because of what had happened, was complaining to her guide that they wouldn’t let her in the water. Paul challenged her on her behaviour and she quickly shut up. Unbelievable.

We came to LP to organise our Vietnamese visas, and happily we did this without hassle or hitch. We were now ready to plot our route into Vietnam, just a few weeks after originally planned.

Vientiane & Kong Lor

Kong Lor Cave

Leaving KL, we flew up to Vientiane the capital of Laos, basically because Air Asia were doing cheap flights allowing us to get to the northern area of South East Asia. Air Asia seems to be the airline that Easyjet aspires to be – arriving at the airport you do a self check-in for your boarding pass but even go as far as to print out and attach your own check in baggage labels, cheap and efficient.

Tuk Tuk AnnieKnowing very little of Laos we explored what seemed like a decent enough small city located on the Mekong River, which runs from China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and then down to Vietnam, it’s a beast. Beerlao is the drink of choice here and is dirt cheap, a 640ml bottles cost about 75p around town, it’s actually not bad – a welcome step up from overpriced Tiger in KL. A few evenings were spent in various bars drinking and watching the locals, backpackers and what seems to be a bit of an older middle aged tourist/expat crowd. Laos has a 12pm curfew so everywhere closes at 11:30 and you are expected to be home and off the streets by then, seems a little strange.

Our plan is to head north and enter Vietnam once we have a Visa sorted, but the Kong Lor cave located seven hours south was calling. The village used to be a bit of a tricky place to get to, but now with a direct local bus running it seemed worth the journey. The bus was packed with locals who don’t mind endlessly staring at you, I found out making eye contact back soon stopped that. Boarding the bus, we had to sit right at the back which is never ideal and quickly noticed that the two sets of seats in front were not fixed correctly, when the bus cornered the seats would start to pivot around. As the bus seats filled, the locals still proceeded to get on, no one is asked to stand but instead little plastic seats come out and the isle is filled with people sitting all the way down. Needless to say this bus did not have seat belts…

You what?Arriving early evening, we had no accommodation booked so started walking door to door asking each guest house and hotel if they had space. A few other backpackers were doing the same, we all had the same concern “what if someone else gets the last room” and sped up our search accordingly! Turns out there was plenty of room, we checked in and got some food with a few others before heading to bed as the town has nothing else to offer bar the caves.

The Kong Lor caves run with a 7.5k river below them in darkness. We walked down to the entrance, rented a head torch, chartered a long boat and headed in. The boat driver was super confident, racing along the water with a small boy guiding at the front looking for rocks and low water. Its really impressive inside, some of the features are lit up and theres a little pathway where you dismount for a wander. As it’s dry season the boat gets stuck at a couple of points, you have to jump out in to the water whilst they guide it through before hopping back in.

Kong LorThe other side does have a village which you can arrange a “home stay”, basically staying with a local family in their house, reviews say you may end up in a spare room or in their living room. We chose a beer at a stall before getting called to return back to the start. One more night in the Kong Lor village before an early start on the 7am bus back north to Vientiane.

Coming back to Vientiane, the evening was spent with a lovely sunset jog along the river and closed roads of the city which were filled with people who come out for the view, making a nice atmosphere. We are starting to get in to a nice laid back approach to South East Asia travelling, suits me fine!