Category Archives: Laos

Travel tips and adventures in Laos

Charlie and the Loopers

(Also known as “The Trip of a Lifetime!”)

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The map we received to embark on the Tha Khaek Loop. We were dubious at first but it did the job.

Getting to Tha Khaek
It was a hot daytime ride from the capital, Vientiane, to Tha Khaek in central Laos. Myself and Orna were joined by Ecuadorian Janeth, and Englishman Charlie on the seven hour journey that isn’t on the main tourist trail. Aboard the local bus one would never fear hunger as at numerous points along the road locals hopped on and sold their wares of chewing gum, fruit in plastic bags, water and pastries. It felt like a human zoo as everyone shouted and hung goods in my face. The toilet break didn’t even bring us to a dingy restaurant with squatters. We stopped by the side of the road, men on one side, women in the bushes on the other. It was open air squatting among mountains of tissue from previous users!

When we eventually arrived at the bus station it seemed as if the tuk tuk drivers weren’t bothered getting any work. It was bizarre. Eventually eight of us squashed into one tuk tuk, big rucksacks and all. We stayed in the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge, read of past experiences of previous Loopers in the log book and sang songs over an open campfire.

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My 3 Amigos

Our outfits to get into the Buddah cave

Our outfits to get into the Buddah cave

Sunset at Tha Lang Village

Sunset at Tha Lang Village

Day 1 – The Road to Hello (Sabaidee)
After trying to source ourselves some automatic motorbikes, we eventually set off with small school bags of provisions for our four-day adventure. The views were just glorious, travelling through karst mountains with the wind blowing through our hair (beneath our helmets of course). There was little traffic so we had the road to ourselves with Charlie taking the lead on the semi-automatic bike. We did the 10km dusty, bumpy ride to and from the Buddah Cave­­. Despite having trousers on, Janeth was forced to rent a wrap skirt. Charlie tried frog on a stick afterwards as we sat down and drank coconut water (in a carton!). As the sun began to set, we arrived at the small village of Sabaidee. It was just magical as we watched the sun fall below the horizon across a lake. The colours were a spectacular end to a long day of wondrous driving. We had a dorm to ourselves and fell asleep to the sound of a fan so big it seemed about to take off!

The dusty road from Tha Lang Village to Lak Sao

The dusty road from Tha Lang Village to Lak Sao

Away they go!

Away they go!

Day 2 – The Dusty Way
Face masks in tow, we set off on what was to be the most challenging day – 20km of red dirt road. As we bumped along I couldn’t help but laugh to myself about how the red, rocky, narrow (at times) road was the main road around that part of the loop. The earth cast off a brilliant orange/red glow full of life and energy, and was paired perfectly with the odd occurrence of green foliage as a backdrop. I loved bumping and maneuvering over the challenging landscape, much more than going 70km down a main road. By the time we stopped for lunch in Lak Sao (where everyone says not to stay overnight), I had a fantastic tan of orange dust.

View of Kuon Kharn

View of Kuon Kharn

It was beautiful and heart-warming to travel through small, dusty villages and have children shout “Sabaidee” in delight at the tourists that they hardly ever see. We took a few wrong turns but eventually made it to the village of Kuon Kharn and stayed in a luxurious room with two double beds for 2.50 euro each. Disaster struck when I couldn’t work the shower and got locked outside of our room for about an hour. Covered in dust and dirt, a hot shower was all I needed. Meanwhile the three others were content to remain manky for a while longer. The concentration of the day had me exhausted and I balled like a baby until I got help!

Houses along the quiet road to Konglor Cave

Houses along the quiet road to Konglor Cave

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Charlie up ahead

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The chicken coup by our lodgings for the night.

Day 3 – Konglor Cave
We made the easy, calming, glorious secluded ride to Konglor Cave. We passed small clutterings of ramshackle houses along a road surrounded by fields. The pure serenity and enjoyment as we glided along was astounding. Each of us in our own world as we took in the sights, sounds, and smells.

The cave itself was an experience. One hour one way in the dark on a little canoe with head torches was how it happened. The boat trip was exciting, scary and anxiety-wrenching, especially as we had to evacuate the canoe momentarily so that it could be sent up the current. Later a  foreign man looked at me in disbelief as I made myself a crisp sandwich! We ended the journey with a dip in the river, fooling around like children let out for their summer holidays!

That evening we went in search of a homestay. We followed a man who got us to follow another man. He led us up a stairs to his wooden house on stilts that was to be home for the night. The four travellers sat cross-legged on the floor around a tiny round metal table to a dinner of sticky rice in a wooden basket with green vegetables and egg. Afterwards we were joined by the man of the house (grandfather), his wife and two daughters and their five children combined. The evening of sitting on the wooden floor with thin mats was a complete Laotian experience. The grandmother, whose back was so bent, probably from years on the rice fields, helped the girls with their homework and was able to chat a little with us. We tried our best to communicate with the few words we were given on the back of our hand-drawn map but used universal gestures as well as games to communicate with the glowing, smiling children. “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” went down a treat, as did “Down By the River” and other clapping games. I felt humbled to be welcomed into their home. That night we went to bed at 10pm on thin mattresses laid side by side on the floor, with small hard pillows and one mosquito net over us all. We went to sleep  to the sounds of cocks beneath us and were woken up the same way.

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Day 4 – The Road Home (The Last Leg)
Breakfast at 6.30am was the same as dinner the night before. We said our goodbyes and hit the road at 7.40am. We retraced our steps down the beautiful barren road. At times we stumbled upon children walking, cycling, motorbiking or on buses on their way to school. Some waved and giggled while others were too cool to salute! Some grannies waved us on our way while a young boy of about four was work-bound with his mother and a shovel in tow. The long highway home was more about testing our speed skills rather than seeing many sights but our stop off for a noodle soup was delicious. There was only one or two choices for food so not hard to pick!

We made it back to Tha Khaek and the Travel Lodge. As the dust began to settle we devoured all food in sight and talked about the amazing adventure we had just completed, the one that made a big stamp in our hearts.

Our Travel Entry

The bus journey to Vang Vieng

As soon as I sat down on our minibus, I knew that the journey would be like no other.

At a glance the journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (northern Laos) looks like it should take a few hours. Google maps says it can be done in a car in two hours twenty-eight minutes…It took seven hours.

Lets twist again…
This route is one of the windiest I have ever come across, and that’s after being in the Cameron Highlands in Peninsular Malaysia and Pai in Northern Thailand. We veered around corner after corner after corner. The driver had his foot glued to the breaks as he dodged random potholes, rocketed over landslides, and manoeuvred the minibus over dirt tracks of red dust. I think we spent most of the journey over the other side of the road avoiding enormous crevices. God bless his eye sight.

The route took us higher and higher into the mountains as the light started to fade.

A Different Life
It was up in these mountains that I began to see what I thought I would see everywhere in Asia. The minibus sailed by tiny poverty-stricken villages that hung off the mountain’s edge. Young children carried babies, others played in the dirt outside the wooden shacks they call home. Doors lay wide open as people sat cross-legged on the ground. Others had curtains up to divide the one room into numerous bedrooms and living areas. Grey, concrete houses with no windows and doors, only holes where they should be, were lit up by a solo television screen. Shops were illuminated by single fluorescent light bulbs, casting an eerie glow on the produce.

Grown men stood in their underwear by the roadside as they washed in the town’s water source. Others crouched by taps at the side of the road over a gully to wash their clothes, dishes, hands, and bodies with only a hand torch to warn passersby of their presence. Pyramids of lemons lay underneath tents and fluorescent lights on deserted, dark roads.

It was like a different world to me. I felt as if we were intruding on these people’s lives as our minibus thundered through their remote villages.

We arrived!
At one point our driver pulled over to guzzle down an energy drink. It made us feel extremely safe! Obviously the concentration had taken it’s toll. The Russian guy beside him guided him the rest of the way to Vang Vieng on his iPad. We did actually make it, aside from us all thinking differently a few times along the way. And in true Asian fashion, (you always bump into the same people) we were dropped outside the restaurant that our friends were hanging out at. Score!

Luang Prabang in Laos

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Girl's shoes abandoned at the night market

Luang Prabang definitely shows off it’s French influences. The quaint Laotian town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it has a certain look to obtain. Most of the restaurant and guesthouse signs have yellow-gold raised wooden lettering on a brown wooden background. There is a never ending supply of cute restaurants and cafes to tickle your fancy.

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The night market

Luang Prabang Night Market
Having come from eye-level markets in Thailand with each vendor having their own upright stall space, the low tents with produce displayed on the ground at Luang Prabang were a new, somewhat unusual sight for my eyes. At first glance it seemed quite a drab place but once I entered the long tunnel of tents, I was emersed. Clothes and bags were in their plenty, as well as jewellery made out of used bullets. It was easier to bargain for a good price here than in Thailand. So much so that I had bargained and agreed a good price for a bag for my friend before she’d even seen it. Thank goodness she liked it and bought it!

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Veggie food (apologies about the blur)

Street food
A few alleys filled with street vendors lay just off the night market. There was barbecued meat on sticks, and veggies galore. I filled a bowl full of vegetarian delights–noodles, rice, spring rolls, and prawn crackers. It cost 1 euro 50 cent. Definitely worth it!

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One of the pools at the falls


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Kuang Si waterfall


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A quiet reverie

Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si waterfall was a spectacular sight of clear turquoise water. It’s about a forty-five minute tuk tuk/sawngteaw ride outside of Luang Prabang. The price we paid included the driver waiting for us until we returned at a premeditated time. Perfectly clean turquoise pools sit at the bottom of the waterfall with thick branches to jump off. A bridge at the bottom was the perfect spot for photo opportunities and to see the water cascading down the cliff face. Myself and a slew of others followed two Irish friends who had been at the falls a few days previous. We trekked up the left side of the waterfall and when we reached the top we began to make our ascent down it (yes, down the actual watery waterfall, full of it’s rocks and water). At first a little gate led the way, then as we went further down, short metal rods stuck out of the rocks to guide us down to a private pool where we jumped off rocks a few metres high. Of course we had great fun and many GoPro videos of energetic jumps were shot.

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Hilltop view

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Young girls selling at the bottom; Orna's temple outfit, aka my scarf; view from the top

Hilltop view at Wat Com Si Temple
We climbed a couple of hundred steps up to the banjaxed-looking temple in the centre of Luang Prabang to get a view of the city and Mekong river. It was a few kip to get up there. The view was nice, but probably better to go at sunset. We bought little doll keyrings off two girls at the bottom. They told us we were beautiful with gorgeous smiles. Sometimes I’m not sure if they actually mean it or are just reaming off something they have been thought or thought to believe.

I didn’t quite make it up at the crack of dawn to watch the daily Alms Giving Ceremony where monks get donations of food from the public. Monks rely on getting food from the local people and Luang Prabang has become famous for tourists to ogle them in their daily activity. Part of me was glad I didn’t go to watch.

A night on the town
A few of us decided to do as the tourists do and go to Utopia bar. It’s a cool, chilled venue with good music to dance to. Which I did. It also has a beach volleyball court. That I didn’t do. After a dance and a few gin and tonics, we went on the Luang Prabang Rite of Passage–the bowling alley. It’s the only place that stays open after 12pm in the town so it was an absolute must. A bunch of drunk tourists bowling and drinking more beer was exactly what it was, with those more intoxicated playing atrociously!

Relax, Relax, Relax
One day I only left our room to eat dinner downstairs. I was feeling a little ‘off’ and probably getting worn out from the hectic travel plans. My lovely, dear friend Orna was kind enough to bring me breakfast in bed, snacks for our movie afternoon, and a takeaway dinner. It was definitely a much-needed pyjama day. I think when you’re travelling you can get caught up in the adventure of it all and forget that a day of rest can be just as good.

Getting lost
For quite a small town I found it difficult to find my way around. If it wasn’t for the three others I was with I would have been constantly lost. My confusion was a combination of water bordering three sides of the town and the identical signage. Thanks guys!

If in Laos, this town is definitely worth a trip.

Where I stayed:
We wandered around to try find somewhere with a reasonable price. We eventually followed a guy on a motorbike that had two beds in a room for 5 euro each so we went with it. I wouldn’t recommend it though. The toilets were smelly and we had to scale the gates when we got back from our late night out.

Sss-slow boat through Laos

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Starting the journey through Laos
Getting the slow boat from the Thai/Laos border to Luang Prabang is a popular choice. I had no idea what I was expecting. Something along the lines of a ferry that we would spend the night on. It turns out it was more like a bigger version of a long tail boat. The one we had on the first day was one of the better ones as there were tables between four. Usually the owners of the boats live on them with their families.

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The brown Mekong

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Inside the slow boat

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Photo bomb

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Our slow boat crew

Myself and Orna were joined by Dutch Antoon and Cho who were travelling solo. I’d heard tell that the slow boats can be great craic, that everyone drinks together and the entire boat becomes best friends by the second day. It wasn’t quite like that. It was more about having chats along the quiet, brown Mekong river watching green hills and time pass by. There wasn’t much else to it. The Mekong flows in weird, mysterious ways. It appears to swirl in many places that the captain tries to avoid. I imagined been sucked down a whirl pool never to be seen again. The odd time I saw a water buffalo or some local people unloading a boat. It was pleasant to have a few beers and share stories with others on the five hour journey to Pakbeng, where we spent the first night.

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Sunset at Pak Beng

Pakbeng–The sleepy riverside village
The sun was starting to set as we docked in Pakbeng. There was a collection of locals and kids there to greet us. They had pictures of guesthouses and rooms to rent to us. It seemed that the small town was only there for the daily arrival of tourists from the slow boat and the kids seemed to be there out of curiosity and boredom. Myself and a slew of others followed a lady up a hill at dusk (our rucksacks had gone up in a pick up truck–I was slightly wary of this but I’d nothing to worry about). It turned out to be the best accommodation in town as two ladies had checked out a few places before settling on our choice. We walked back down the dark, unlit hill to go up another to the village for dinner. It seems we joined most of our slow boat in a nice Indian restaurant. 

Shockingly, I had my first hot shower in about a month in this random town. Asia never ceases to amaze!

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Day two on the slow boat

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Inside the slow boat

Day Two
Day two didn’t go that differently than day one. A lot of people got up earlier to try get a good seat or onto a boat with tables etc. Turns out there were no tables this time and I sat beside a Scottish guy while Orna sat beside an unsociable girl with headphones in the entire way. The other two were down the back close to the engine so they could hardly hear what the other was saying. Getting there a little earlier would have helped it seems.

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Cave near Luang Prabang

Foreigners get scammed
The boat docked at a point a kilometre or two from Luang Prabang. Apparently at one time they used to stop at the town centre but it seems they’ve devised a scam for tourists to be forced to pay a few euro extra in a tuk tuk to get to the final destination even though it’s the slow boat to Luang Prabang and not the ‘slow boat to a few kilometres down the Mekong from Luang Prabang’.

Paying a euro or two for a tuk tuk wouldn’t be the problem (if it was included in the slow boat price we wouldn’t even know about it) but paying for one that is blatantly created to scam tourists was pretty annoying.

Yes, it’s not fun to be scammed (especially when there are a few scenarios like this devised when you first enter Laos) but in the end these people are just trying to make a living. The boat will continue to stop a few kilometres away (too far to walk in my opinion with a heavy rucksack like some others did) so the tuk tuk journey needs to be factored into costs too.

I ended up loving Laos and it’s people so these tiny first impressions were thrown to the wayside.

Getting from Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand into Laos via land border and onwards to slow boat towards Luang Prabang

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I made the decision for myself and my travel buddy that we wouldn’t use the cushy way to get into Laos. We could have paid 1550 baht (41.86 euro) to a travel agent who would collect us from our hotel and organise all our transport along the way, including helping fill out our visa forms and handing in all our documents at the border. Basically being spoon fed.

Instead, I got talking to a older Australian man at our guesthouse, accompanied by Thai girlfriend of course, and decided to join them on their journey. I figured a Thai-speaker and a man who’d been to Laos many times were just as good as a tourist organised operation. I wanted the challenge rather than the easy option.

This is how the journey to the slow boat panned out:

Local bus from Chiang Rai to border town Chiang Khong – 65 baht (1.76 euro)
We were told at our guesthouse that we needed to catch the first local bus at 6 am to be sure that we’d make the slow boat at 10 am in Huay Xai. It was a five minute walk in the dark with odd sounds coming from buildings around us. In the words of my friend, the bus was quite ‘Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry’. It was a rackety old thing with no leg room and enough space for 1.5 people on the bench type seats. 

It took two hours to get to Chiang Khong, the border town.

Tuk tuk to border control – 50 baht (1.35 euro)
We got dropped off on the middle of a highway where a line of tuk tuks were waiting to bring us to the border to get stamped out of Thailand. We saw a Tuk tuk handing some money to the bus driver (probably as a way of thank you for dropping us off at their Tuk tuk establishment).

It was a few minutes journey and not worth the money but it’s how it’s done.

Bus over bridge into Laos – 25 baht (0.68 euro)
After border control there were buses waiting outside to bring us across the bridge that divides Thailand and Laos. Apparently it used to be easier a few years ago when you crossed by boat over the border further north.

Apply for Laos visa – 35 US dollars (30.80 euro)
We got into the building, rushed to get a form to fill out the ‘Arrivals’ section along with about two other similar forms and handed them into a guy at a hatch. We waited as our visas were processed by a person who never saw our faces. We had to wait for our names to be called with a fresh visa inside. It can be the luck of the draw if your passport gets to the top or bottom of the pile to process.

As far as I saw visas cost either 30 or 35 euro depending on nationality. They only took one passport photo, not two. But I’m sure this could change from day to day. I think scamming can also happen at times but I’ve found being there early in the morning helps rather than late afternoon. 

Tuk tuk to slow boat – 100 baht (2.70 euro)
The tuk tuks were lined up and waiting to take us to where we wanted. We waited a few minutes to let it fill up. We heard him quote us something different until some locals got in and the price went up.

Slow boat ticket – 950 baht (25.70 euro)
As it’s a well-used border area, bahts are still used and accepted. We thought the time for the slow boat was 10 am. It had a sign up stating 11 am and we left after 12 pm. 

Total:
1190 baht = 32.18 euro

Total saving:
360 baht = 9.83 euro

Note:
These transportation prices in baht were true as of 19 November 2014 and the euro exchange prices were correct as of 27 February 2015. The visa price was for an Irish individual travelling by land from Thailand into Laos on 19 November 2014.