Laos

Trip Start Sep 01, 2008
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Trip End Sep 01, 2009


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

We decided to cross into Laos from Vietnam over the Lao Boh border (right at the old DMZ in Vietnam at the North and South divide). We'd heard too many horror stories about the border crossings up North, so we opted for the shortest and least problematic crossing.  Everything worked out great as is just so happened that friends that we had met back in Indonesia (in Sumatra) were in the first town we arrived at in Laos.  Savanaket is the third largest city in Laos, so Erin and I expected another big Asian city full of hustle and bustle, but not so!  It was like a ghost town.  You could almost hear crickets and see tumble weeds blowing through the streets.  We found an internet café and 'skype’ called our Aussie friends, Roh and Rob.  We ate dinner with them that night by the Mekong River.  They persuaded us to go down south with them, which was not our original plan, but that’s half the fun of traveling on an open schedule and being flexible enough to change your plans on a whim.  So the next day we caught a bus six hours south to a town called Pakse.  Once there, we decided to rent motorbikes and take a tour around the Bolaven Plateau.  We stored our large backpacks at a guest house and just took our day packs with enough to survive for a couple of days.  It was great fun.  We went to Champasak (an old Khmer temple ruin), saw some spectacular waterfalls, and stayed in some great hotels off the tourist beaten trail.  The highlight was playing in a waterfall with a bunch of local kids.  They had built bamboo rafts to float around the pool at the bottom of the falls.  All the kids were jumping on and off (Roh and I were also throwing them off :-) as they steered the rafts closer to the strongest part of the falls.  You had to basically close your eyes and hang on for dear life as 10 tons of water tumbled on top of you.  I think that both Erin and Rob lost their bikini tops as well, which definitely made them a hit with the locals… LoL!

After Pakse we caught another bus and boat to Si Phan Don (The Four Thousand Islands) on the Mekong.  We stayed on Don Khon for a couple of days first.  There we met ‘Papa’, the owner of the hotel we were staying at.  Papa was quite a character.  I don’t think we ever saw him without a bottle of Lao Lao (home brew whiskey) in his hand.  He referred to himself as ‘Papa doctor’ and was insistent that Lao Lao was the cure for anything and everything.  So, if you’d just woken up in the morning and were still quite tired………. well……..time for Lao Lao! 

Time seems to stand still in Si Phan Don.  Everything moved very slowly, including us.  We did rent bicycles the one day and cruised around to Tat Somphamit (very dramatic and beautiful waterfalls), and drove along the first and only railway line in all of Laos.  Other than that it was all about relaxing.  We decided one day that we’d done enough relaxing on Don Khon and that it was time to go and relax over on Don Det (the adjacent island).  Relaxing on Don Det was much better.  We had hammocks at our guest house there, which makes the world of difference!  Actually, that place turned out to be our cheapest accommodation is Asia to date ($2/night).  After five days in Si Phan Don we bid farewell to our good friends Roh and Rob as their Laos visa’s had expired and they were leaving for Cambodia.  It was so much fun traveling with them! 

Before leaving Roh and Rob, we picked their brains for the best places to visit in Laos as they had spent the last two months there.  Rob was great.  She marked up our LP (Lonely Planet) with all of their favourite spots.  So Erin and I hit the road again.  This time it was a nine hour bus ride north to Tha Khaek.  Once there, we rented a motorbike again and toured around to the many caves in the area.  The surrounding landscape was spectacular!  It is very similar to Vietnam with respect to the limestone rock formations and mountains, but much greener.  A highlight of our Tha Khaek visit was hanging out with a group of locals for the day on their family picnic outing.  We had just surfaced from one cave we’d been stumbling through in the dark when a guy asked us to come and join him for a drink and some food.  We initial thought that the picnic set-up was a make-shift restaurant and sat down on a mat on the floor and proceeded to order drinks.  We felt so proud that we had mastered the art of ordered drinks using our newly found Laos language skills.  "Jow mee song bia Loas bien bo" (I would like two cold beers).  We hadn’t learned how to say “please” yet.  We were passed a glass of warm beer each with an ice cube in it.  We graciously accepted.  It wasn’t until a few moments later that we realised that we’d just ‘ordered’ a beer from a family picnic outing.  “Dumb Tourists”!  They didn’t seem to mind though and enjoyed our company for the remainder of the day.  In fact, they wouldn’t let us leave!  It was great fun hanging out with a local family and eating local Laos barbeque food with them.  We offered money, but they wouldn’t accept.

After Tha Khaek we took a bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  For a capital city, much like the rest of Laos, it was very relaxed.  We didn’t do too much there.  We visited temples and markets, etc.  At night we ate at really nice open air restaurants set-up along the banks of the Mekong.  It was nice, but deep down we’re not really ‘big-city folk’.  So we caught a bus further north to Vang Vieng.  Here, we found where all of the ‘falang’ (tourists) had been hiding out.  Under normal circumstances this might not have been our cup of tea, but we really hadn’t seen too many tourist infested towns in a while, so we ate it up.  The big draw in Vang Vieng is the river tubing.  They have set-up numerous bars along the banks of the river with all kinds of insane rope-swings, zip lines, slides, etc., for drunk tourist to try while tubing down the river.  As you float along, you are enticed into each bar with offers of free drinks, “happy” shakes ;-), or mud wrestling, ping pong….. you name it!  It was brill.  We hooked up with a South African/Mexican couple and spent the day partaking in the many activities available.  Aside from the drunkenness and debauchery of Vang Vieng tubing there are plenty of other things to do.  The scenery is amazing.  Beautiful, green covered mountains line the banks of the river.  There are many caves to visit (which we did one day).  I went rock climbing, which was excellent!  The instructor was amazing.  Unlike in Vietnam where the climbing outfit was run by westerners, this organization was Laos run.  In Vietnam, everything was set-up for us to just go ahead and start climbing, which was good for an introductory lesson, but here we were encouraged to learn every aspect of the climb, including set-up, rope knots, leading, spotting, etc.  And the climbing was top notch! 

Next we headed further North to Luang Prabang.  This is a very old and quaint little French colonial town.  There are lots of great restaurants, beautiful old Buddhist temples and an amazing night market where the Hmong locals sell all kinds of hand crafted jewellery, textiles, paper lanterns and other trinkets.  There is also a street by the market lined with food vendors where you can eat vegetarian buffet for next to nothing (50 cents, I think).  From Luang Prabang we chartered a tuk-tuk to take us to Tat Kuang Si, a picture perfect multi-tiered waterfall.  We shared the tuk-tuk with some South American guys we met and spent the day swimming and jumping from rope swings into the crystal clear turquoise pools at each different level of the falls. 

After a few days in Luang Prabang we headed north again to Nong Khiaw.  What a stunning place!  We stayed in a bamboo bungalow right on the river with breath taking mountains in the background.  We didn’t want to leave Nong Khiaw.  There was an amazing Indian restaurant (Dean’s) where we ate nearly every night.  We went throw net fishing with one of the locals one day.  We hiked up a mountain, which I really liked, and so did Erin……. once we got down to the bottom again…. LoL!  Actually, we had to laugh; on the way up, about 2 hours into the trek we reached a clearing from the jungle used for farming.  The view was spectacular!  Both Erin and I were breathing heavy and drenched with sweat.  We took a break and as we were sitting there trying to catch our breath, an old women (must’ve been 70 at least) came walking up the trail carrying about 80 kilo’s on her back, not a bead of sweat on her and not at all out of breath.  Erin and I felt disgusted with ourselves at how out of shape we were.  Then we realised that this was her morning commute to work.  Everyday she has to hike two hours up a steep mountain face to get to her farm to work the land.  And I thought my morning commute stuck in traffic in my nice air-conditioned car was bad! 

From Nong Khiaw we took a really nice hour long boat ride further north up the Nam Seuang river to Muang Ngoi Neua.  You can only reach Muang Ngoi by boat.  It’s a very small Hmong village.  It is even quieter than Nong Khiaw, which is hard to believe.  We totally lucked out and found a bungalow on the river bank with an amazing view for only $3.50/night.  There were two large doors that opened up with a hammock right inside the room.  It was heaven!  We’d only planned and budgeted on staying a night or two there, but again, didn’t want to leave.  So we had quite a laugh trying to spread our money out as thin as possible from one day to the next.  Of course, if there are no roads to get to Muang Ngoi, there are definitely no ATM’s.  Surprisingly, we managed to stay for four nights and lived quite comfortably for around $9 per day for the two of us!   

Next we decided to ‘fast-track’ it back down to Vientiane.  We stayed for one more night in Luang Prabang, and then took a very long bus ride back to the capital.  Roh and Rob had highly recommended that we stay at an Eco Resort in the jungle just on the outskirts of Vientiane.  I’m not going to mention the name of the place as the owner (Mike) doesn’t want the entire Laos backpacking community to find out about the place and turn it into another Vang Vieng.  What I can say though is that the place was paradise.  We spent five nights with Mike at his resort.  He bought 10 hectares of land with a river flowing through the middle of it.  He built ten (I think) bungalows.  There is no power on the resort.  All the food is bought fresh from the local markets and everything is recycled.  The resort has only been open now for five months and the first day we got there an unexpected group of fifteen people travelling together had found Mike’s business card in Vientiane and called him up to come and stay.  That made for a great party the first night!  They all left the next day, so for the rest of the time, it was very quite, which was nice.  We went on many hikes with Mike through his jungle.  He has owned the land for two years now and has a very good understanding of the ecology of the place.  He showed us so many different insect, lizard, plant and mushroom species.  We saw stink bugs, scorpions, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, rhino beetles, geckos, snakes, and so many other creepy crawlies that I can’t remember.  It was definitely another highlight of our trip (thanks again Roh and Rob).

And that concludes our long overdue Laos blog.  What an amazing country!  I would recommend anyone go there.  It’s a place that you always imagined in your mind that Asia would be before tourism and development hit, like Thailand, 50 years ago (maybe?).  Erin and I both agreed that we were so glad that we went to Vietnam first before going to Laos as I don’t think that we would have appreciated Vietnam as much as we did at the time if we’d seen Laos first. 
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