Category Archives: Laos

Laid-Back Laos

It may have been only a bus ride from Vietnam but laid-back Laos feels a world away from its hectic neighbour. It’s a country of golden temples, tangerine-robed monks, jungle clad mountains, and some reserved but very friendly people. It almost feels like the earth spins a bit slower in Laos and, for us, it has been the perfect place to change down a gear as we approach the end of our trip – we’ll be home in a couple of weeks!

We spent our first couple of days in Laos in its capital – Vientiane, which could possibly be the quietest capital city in the world. There are lots of examples of its French colonial history with wide boulevards, cafes, and architectural refinement. There’s even an ‘Arc de Triomphe’, albeit a concretely replica built in the 1960’s!

Pride of place though is a the ‘Pha That Luang’ (Great Sacred Stupa), which is the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of Buddism and the country’s sovereignty. Images of the stupa appear on all official documents and bank notes. It’s about 4km out of the city so we rented bicycles and leisurely pedalled out to it, and to be fair it is pretty impressive.

They must use a lot of gold paint as nearly every Buddist monument is covered in it, as was demonstrated by numerous statues and buildings that surrounded the stupa – including the architecturally impressive national history museum (we didn’t go in). Besides the Budist monuments and the Arch there’s not too much to see in Vientiane, but nevertheless we enjoyed lazily cycling around its quiet streets and enjoying a coffee or two in some of the cafes.

With the Euro 2012 footy tournament on at the moment we have to plan our long distance bus trips carefully. For example we wanted to take an overnight but to the northern town of Luang Prabang about 12 hours away, but because England were playing France that evening we decided to break up the journey and stop in the infamous town of Vang Vieng (about 150km north) to watch the game. We didn’t really want to go to Vang Vieng, it has a reputation as a place where young backpackers go to indulge in booze and drugs. Sadly this is exactly what we discovered. Having said that when we first arrived we were pleasantly surprised as the view of the surrounding misty mountains from our guesthouse, at the quiet end of the town, was lovely.

Most people are here to go tubing, which is floating down the river in an inflatable ring stopping at the numerous bars along the river bank to down shots of Whisky or indulge in magic mushroom shakes. Of course taking getting totally wasted whilst playing in a fast-flowing river is not a good mix and on average 40 backpackers a year drown here – an incredible statistic that had us wondering why the place hasn’t been shut down, this newspaper article sums it all up if you want to know.

We went into the town to have some food, a very big and tasty burger, and watch the game. It wasn’t a great atmosphere, but watching it with my drunken compatriots was painful and we couldn’t wait to get back to the tranquil hotel. Unfortunately this tranquillity was ruined when we realised that we were sharing our bed with a load of bed bugs. Thus, first thing in the morning we were on the bus travelling north to Luang Prabang. Lesson learnt – if somewhere has a bad reputation, give it a miss!

It was only a few hundred KM’s but the journey took six hours on a very bendy road up and down mountain passes, which gave us some fantastic views although there were some pretty scary drop offs!

Thankfully we arrived safely in timeless Luang Prabang, which we liked immediately. Lying on the banks of the Mekong River surrounded by mountains the town has a scenic setting, which coupled with some lovely colonial buildings, Buddhist temples, and a easy-going atmosphere make it a lovely place.

Of course this hasn’t gone unnoticed and the town is firmly on the tourist trail, but unlike Vang Vieng it hasn’t had a negative impact. There are numerous guesthouses, restaurants, and European style cafes – you can get a good coffee here – but it all somehow seems to fit in with the vibe of the town. We stayed at the cheap but nice Mao Pha Shok guest house, which had a room with a balcony overlooking the river.

This was a contributing factor that has seen us stay in Luang Prabang for 6 days, which we have taken at gentle pace, this is not a place to rush about, mainly due to late nights watching the football! There are numerous temples dotted around the town, which are all similar, but it was interesting to see what the monks (there are lots of them in Luang Prabang) get up to at the towns main temple, Wat Xieng Thong – pretty much anything that needs doing it seems, including a bit of decorating.

There were other interesting temples across the river, which we crossed in a long thin ferry boat, and it’s fair to say that there’s quite a difference on the opposite back from the town. In Luang Prabang you can get a cappuccino and a croissant in a French style cafe, whilst over the river people live in simple huts on dirt roads – I guess you could say this is the ‘real’ Laos.

We walked a couple of KM’s along the river bank through villages and found several simple temples along the way. Again there were several monks resident and we learnt that parents (especially those from poor backgrounds) send their sons to be educated in Buddism as they cannot provide for them. The monks live a simple life with few possessions but they are highly respected. The most interesting temple was surprisingly in a big limestone cave, Wat Tham Xieng Maen, which we found with the help of a young girl (approx. 10) with a torch who unlocked the entrance doors set in the hillside.

Once inside we were surprised by how large the cave was – the girl couldn’t speak much English but it seemed like they worshipped it as Buddha’s burial site, and we saw lots of broken Buddha statues lying around. It was quite a bizarre experience walking around a dark cave with a child as a guide – of course she insisted on a tip! Another temple, Wat Chom Phet, was set at the top of a step staircase up the hillside, and on climbing it we had a good view back over the river towards Luang Prabang.

The ferry driver picked us up and took us on cruise along the river for the sunset, which was a leisurely trip during which we saw several fishermen working with their nets. We enjoyed the sunset whilst sipping on a can of the local Beer – Beerlao – very relaxing.

We had initially thought Laos’s food was similar to Thai, but this is because many restaurants serve Thai food to tourists as it’s more popular. Traditional Laos food is based on sticky rice, which is served up anytime of the day. We found a restaurant called Tamarind, which specialised in introducing tourists to local food with a menu full of detailed descriptions it really aided our understanding. We tried the tasting platter, which consisted of river seaweed, stewed bamboo shoots, spicy jungle vegetables, a Luang Prabang sausage, buffalo rind chilli paste, and of course sticky rice. An interesting experience with some pretty intense, and new, flavours!

We had a look around the Royal Palace, which was built relatively recently in 1904 for the Laos king and his family. The palace served as the residence for three successive kings until 1975 when a revolution saw the royal family exiled to a cave in Northern Laos, since then the palace has been a museum. As you might imagine it’s grand building with large airy rooms and a golden decor, and includes the Pha Bang Buddha statue that gives the town its name.

For another sunset we climbed the 400 steps up to the summit of Mt. Phu Si where a golden stupa, That Chomsi, sits high overlookinig the town – at night it’s lit up and looks very spiritual from below. In the humidity it’s a sweat inducing climb but the views over the town and river are well worth the effort.

At the top we met some local teenagers who wanted to practise their English and we enjoyed talking with them and learning about their culture whilst taking in the views. After climbing down the steps we had a wander through the picturesque night market, which is setup every evening on the main road through the town outside the Royal Palace. Friendly traders sell some delightful souvenirs, and because in Laos the people aren’t pushy, as is common elsewhere in Asia, there’s a really nice atmosphere. The market is surprisingly long and it’s hard to walk through it all without being tempted to buy something!

After another late, and frustrating, night watching England at Euro 2012, we decided to stay up to watch the Morning Alms ceremony at 5:30am. This is a centuries old tradition where the monks walk through the town to receive food offerings, normally sticky rice, from the town’s residents. For the residents it’s a sign of respect to the monks and for the monks it’s an important source of food. There’s a lot of etiquette involved, such as you should never be higher than a monk (everyone kneels down), which makes it hard for tourists to get involved without causing offence. After much debate we bought some sticky rice from our guesthouse, which Lisa joined in with the locals to hand out (literally) to the Monks who carry a large pot for receiving the donations. It was all over really quickly, twenty or so monks walked past single file and received the rice without speaking or any eye contact – quite a strange experience.

Things happen early in Luang Prabang and at 6am a morning market starts where people from rural areas come into the town to sell their produce. There are no supermarkets in Laos so this is where the locals go to do their grocery shopping, by 9am it’s all finished. Despite it being a rainy morning the market was colourful and vibrant – albeit in the laid-back Laos way!

After the market we were gasping for some sleep so slept for the rest of the morning, suitably refreshed, in the afternoon we visited the nearby Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall is tiered over several levels with turquoise pools at each level that are ideal for a refreshing swim – although the water was surprisingly cold!

The following day was my birthday and Lisa’s present to me (and herself!) was a 2-day ‘Mahout’ (the driver and keeper of an elephant) experience. There are several companies that offer these experiences near Luang Prabang so she did some research to find one that cares for the wellbeing of elephants and settled on the ‘Elephant Village’ who focus on rehabilitating elephants from the logging industry. Laos’s is described as ‘the Land of a million elephants’ so it seemed only right that we spend some time with them whilst we were here. It’s located about 15km out of Luang Prabang, down some bumpy dirt roads, on the banks of the Nam Khan River.

Our day started by learning the basic commands of driving the elephants “Song” commands the elephant to lift its leg to help you get on, “Bei” is go, “Hau” is stop, “Si” is right, and “Huay” is left. Of course this went in one ear and out the other, but thankfully we had a real mahout on the elephants with us (most of the time!). Next we learnt how to get up on to the elephants neck – use the elephant’s left leg as a step up and grab hold of her left ear and pull yourself up – easy? No, to the unitiated it’s an undignified scramble up and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the elephant as I yanked at her ear!

Thankfully the elephant, ‘Me Wah’, was patient and didn’t seem to mind – they only use female elephants as they are more gentle. Once up on the neck you then have to fight a bit of vertigo as it’s very high up there! You move as far forward as possible and wedge your knees in behind the elephant’s ears to grip on, and then before you know it you’re off ambling around the field.

After this short practice ride we feed ‘Me Wah’ a load of bananas, which she eagerly reached up for with her trunk.

Later, on a different elephant with a seat strapped to its back, Lisa and I, with a friendly mahout walking alongside, rode out through a village down to the river taking it in turns to ‘play mahout’ along the way. I have to say it was more comfortable riding in the padded seat rather than on the prickly (they have lots of sharp hairs) neck but hey that’s not what we were here for!

It looks like I know what I’m doing eh? Looks are deceiving as I felt the elephant did exactly what it wanted, usually stopping to pull up a bush to chew on, except when the mahout gave her some commands. It was fun though and we had a lot of laughs as the elephants, thankfully, plodded along at a relaxing pace.

After a bit of lunch we checked into a lodge on the banks of the river in a very scenic spot where we would stay overnight. Then we rode an elephant each up into the mountains where they are left to their own devices, on a long chain, in the jungle until the next morning.

Afterwards we visited a waterfall up river, not too exciting as it was pretty much dry, and then cooled off in the lovely swimming pool at the lodge, which had quite a view.

We then relaxed the evening away with a few Beerlaos’s whilst overlooking the river – it had been a very different but fantastic birthday! Next morning we were up early as we had to trek up the mountain to help the mahouts collect the elephants, which we then rode down to the river for a bath – I’m not sure what they had been doing all night but they were filthy! To say the elephants liked the water is an understatement – they couldn’t wait to get in! I have to say I was a little apprehensive going into the water on the back of a several ton animal – the river was fast-flowing, chocolate brown, and pretty high thanks to a load of overnight rain – but you grip on and get on with it!

The elephants were splashing water all over the place and ducking under the water so naturally we got totally soaked, thankfully the water wasn’t too cold, but it was a load of fun. We brushed them off, which they seemed to like especially behind their ears, and after 15 mins or so the elephants emerged looking lovely and clean – what an amazing experience!

There ended our training and we were then told we could now consider ourselves ‘Mahouts’! It was then our turn to have a wash (not in the river!) followed by a nice breakfast before we went back to Luang Prabang. I would thoroughly recommend the ‘Elephant Village’ if you are looking to spend some time with elephants whilst in Laos.

We spent the rest of the day chilling out in a cafe by the river, where I enjoyed a gorgeous ‘Cookie Sundae’ as a belated birthday ‘cake’.

In the late afternoon we sadly, we didn’t want to leave, boarded a bus that would take us overnight out to the Thai border. It was an arduous and bumpy 12–hour trip in a cramped mini-bus along some very bumpy dirt roads – not the best overnight bus trip we have taken – but arrived at the border around 6am. Laos and Thailand are separated by the Khong river, so we got stamped out of Laos and then took a little boat across the river and got stamped into Thailand – as far as border crossings go quite cool!

It was then a nice and smooth, it was obvious immediately that Thailand is much more developed, four hour bus ride from the border to the city of Chiang Mai where we arrived late yesterday afternoon. We were shattered so after a bit of Khao Soi, a delicious noodle soup with coconut milk that is a speciality here, we went to bed. I set an alarm and forced myself to watch the England v Ukraine game last night, which thankfully England won!

So now we are in Thailand, the last, and no means least, country of our 15 month trip – we’ll spend two weeks here. We were pretty sad to leave Laos, it’s a lovely peaceful country with some really lovely people – there’s so much more to it than ‘tubing’ and we would definitely go back there again.

There’s a load of photos from our trip through Laos here.

Vietnam – Sapa, Halong Bay, and on to Laos

We have spent our last week in Vietnam in the north of this fantastic country, which has continued to impress us. We spent the first half of the week in the northern highlands at the town of Sapa, which lies near the Chinese border. To get to there we took an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai and from there it was a windy 40 minute bus ride up into the mountains to the town. Ascending through valleys of cascading rice terraces we had some glorious views.

Sapa was founded as a French hill station in 1909 and is a quaint place with some grand colonial architecture and a spectacular setting. The town is also a great place from which to visit some of the hill-tribe communities, such as the Black H’Mong and Red Dzao tribes, which inhabit some of the surrounding hills. To get out to these remote villages you have to do some trekking and we had pre-booked a tour with a homestay through the Sapa Summit Hotel. It was handy booking through the hotel as we could have a shower and breakfast before setting off on our trek. We were pleased that our friendly guide, Xing, was from one of the communities – the Black H’Mong. Xing’s spoke good and dressed in the traditional way for her tribe. She also carried her baby on her back, wrapped in a basic sling, throughout our tour.

As we walked through Sapa we were joined by many friendly, a bit of a sales ploy, ladies from the Black H’Mong community. All were dressed in the same way with an indigo blue long gown (embroidered with colourful patterns to distinguish age and skill), leggings, a tall hat, and if they are married large heavy earrings.

Owing to the altitude of 1650m it is no surprise that Sapa is regularly shrouded in cloud, and it was misty and damp as we walked along the trails of the Muong Hoa Valley. We passed through several villages along the way, which given their setting and colourfully dressed residents were very picturesque.

With the damp conditions the trails were muddy and slippery, despite us wearing trekking shoes, however the locals in their sandals they seemed to have no problem and regularly had to give us a hand!

To get to our lunch stop at the Lao Chai village we had to cross a river on a rickety old suspension bridge, it didn’t feel particularly safe but it made for a good photo opportunity!

Our homestay was in the Ta Van Village, which is inhabited by the Dzay people. Five of us (Lisa and I, Lawrence from the UK, Naja from Canada, and Jay from Korea) stayed with a lovely family in their wooden house in the centre of the village. The villagers seemed to be used to tourists (there were lots of homestays and even a tourist pub!) and very friendly. It was raining so we relaxed with muddy and sweet Vietnamese coffee overlooking the rice terraces – you don’t get this at Starbucks!

Whilst our hosts couldn’t speak much English we could have a basic conversation and they seemed to like having us around. They cooked us a banquet of a meal, food is very important to the Vietnamese, that we all sat down and ate together. After the meal our hosts insisted on sharing a bottle of rice wine with us, which whilst tasting a bit like paint thinner our hosts seems rather partial to!

It was the homestay experience we were hoping for and we had a lot of fun and really enjoyed the small insight we had into their lives. Here’s a photo of us with the family, on the left, and our guide Xing at the front – the photos wonky as I don’t think the H’Mong lady who took it had ever used a camera before!

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and coffee we trekked out through the rice terraces where workers were laboriously tending to their crops. After crossing another dodgy suspension bridge we stopped at a waterfall for another photo opportunity.

Further up the mountain we had lunch at a H’Mong village where we were harangued one last time by the savvy (sales) ladies – “buy something from me?”cheap price”. Their sales pitches were quite humorous and with many of their souvenirs the result of their own handy work we happily bought a few things from them – once we had negotiated a sensible price!

After lunch we took a bus back up the windy road to Sapa. It had been a really great couple of days, trekking through the fantastic scenery and meeting the tribes is one of our favourite Vietnam experiences. We had the rest of the day to ourselves in Sapa so we had a walk around the town, which has a small catholic church at its centre.

By now our legs were feeling a little tired so we relaxed a while in a nice French cafe that sold good coffee and cake! Dinner was included at our hotel and we were served up pumpkin soup, spring rolls, and chicken curry. Unfortunately, we think, something in this meal gave us food poisoning as we spent most of the night and next day running to the toilet 🙁

We had planned our tour around a visit to the vibrant weekly Bac Ha market, which is a gathering for people from the various communities every Sunday. Sadly we were in no condition to visit the market so we had to miss out – it gives us a reason to come back!

Instead we stayed at the hotel most of the day, whose manager wasn’t too sympathetic and made us pay a fee to stay longer in our room! It wasn’t a great day but thankfully we felt well enough to take the overnight sleeper train back to Hanoi in the evening. We slept like logs for the whole journey and arrived in Hanoi feeling much better.

After a lazy morning in Hanoi we decided we had had enough of being in hotel rooms so visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is a holy site for many Vietnamese as his embalmed corpse is on display here. We didn’t go in as it is closed in the afternoons but its grand dimensions make it a very imposing sight from the outside.

Also in the complex is HCM’s former stilt house residence, the presidential palace, and the icon of Hanoi the ‘One Pillar Pagoda’, which was built to represent a lotus blossom, which to the Vietnamese is a symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.

By this time we hadn’t eaten much for nearly 36 hours and our bellies were rumbling. Noodle soup is good when you’re ill, and as luck would have it the staple meal of Vietnam is beef noodle soup – Pho Bo. The Vietnamese eat Pho Bo for Breakfast, and despite initial reservations we actually enjoyed having it for breakfast once or twice.

The noodles must have helped as we felt back to normal again the next morning, which was good as we set off early on a three day tour to one of Vietnam’s most famous sights – Halong Bay. This majestic and mysterious natural spectacle is a World Heritage listed site that features thousands of limestone pillars/islands formed over 20 million years into various shapes and sizes.

There are lots of tour companies who will take you to Halong Bay all seemingly offering a similar experience, so after a bit of research and recommendation from fellow travellers we plumped for ‘Christina Cruises’. They picked us up at our Hanoi hotel in their minibus for the four hour journey to Halong City. We then boarded a traditional wooden Junk that would take us on a cruise around the bay. In recent years tourists have drowned as a result of poorly maintained boats sinking so I was relieved that ours looked in a seaworthy condition!

There were about twenty of us in the group, which included Vietnamese as well as Western tourists – notably a large group of friendly Israelis. Firstly we had lunch, which was a bit of a feast with fish, squid, chicken, spring rolls, and some battered deep fried sweet corn that was surprisingly nice!

As we ate lunch we cruised out to into the bay and from a distance it looks like the pillars are all one but as you get closer you realise they are all individual rocks jutting out of the sea. Our first stop was at the Thien Cung grotto that is a gigantic cave hollowed out of one of the pillars. We were told we were visiting a cave but we didn’t expect it to be so impressive, it took quite a while to walk through all the chambers and it was so expansive I wondered how the rock above us was supported.

After the cave we went out in a kayak, Lisa in the front and me ‘the engine’ in the back, which allowed us to get up close to some of the formations and explore some of the hidden lagoons. It was good fun, although we had to be careful to avoid the numerous cruise boats that either didn’t notice us or didn’t care if they hit us! We paddled around a floating fishing village where the residents cheerfully waved at us and took in the views of the formations towering above us.

Our tour guide was quite disappointing as he didn’t give us any info except telling us quite aggressively what time we should be where. We visited what he described as a beach but it was more of a mud bath, thankfully we didn’t have to hang out on ‘the beach’ as we found a staircase up to a lookout point at the top of the pillar. Whilst a bit of an effort to get up there the views overlooking the bay were spectacular.

We slept over night on the junk, which was anchored in a calm lagoon between several pillars and in our cabin it was hard to tell we were even on a boat. It was scenic spot to spend the night and we watched a glorious sunset from the top deck.

When darkness fell we tried our hand at squid fishing, a bright light at the front of the boat was used to attract the squid to the lures we dangled from our cane rods. We gave it a go for an hour or so but didn’t get a bite, but nevertheless it was a relaxing and fun way to spend the evening.

We slept well on the Junk and next morning as we ate breakfast we cruised through the bay past countless pillars to the large island of Cat Ba where we disembarked. Jungle clad Cat Ba is the only populated island in the bay and has surprisingly large town at its southern tip. We did a trek up to a high point on the island which gave us a view across it. It was a steep and slippery trail to the top and we were soon sweaty profusely and attacked by swarms of mossies as we trekked through the jungle. When we reached the top the view was OK but I wouldn’t do it again!

After lunch at a restaurant in Cat Ba town we had the afternoon to ourselves and whilst most of the tourists stayed in a hotel there we were glad we had opted to pay more to stay in a bungalow on remote Nam Cat Island. To get there we took a bouncy little boat, piloted by a kindly old man, about 30 minutes along the bay. As soon as we arrived we loved the tranquillity of the place and the view from our bungalow, which stood on 3m stilts above the water, gave us one of the best bedroom views we have had in 14 months of travelling.

It was a great place to relax and enjoy some peace (not easy to find in Vietnam!), and when we got too hot we jumped into the appealing water to cool off.

In the evening we enjoyed a nice BBQ dinner and went to sleep listening to the water lapping at the legs of our bungalow. If you do a tour to Halong, it is well worth the extra cost to stay at these bungalows.

Next morning we took the same boat back to Cat Ba and then after picking up the other tourists from the town took a bus back to the port where we boarded our Junk. We then cruised back out through the ever impressive formations back to the mainland.

Then it was a four hour bus ride back to Hanoi, which was slightly ruined when our guide handed out review forms and then didn’t like the feedback we gave him – not very professional! But nevertheless we had thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Halong Bay, it is a lovely place.

Back in Hanoi we enjoyed some more Bun Bo Nam Bo (see the previous post) for dinner, and took it easy. Whilst we enjoyed the buzz of the city we found it a Hanoi’ng (pardon the pun) place to walk around as it’s a constant battle to weave your way through small streets full of scooters.

Yesterday, after one last Pho Bo we boarded a sleeper bus for a gruelling 20 hour journey to Vientiane in Laos. We had debated whether to fly (1 hour but $190) or take the bus ($25), and in the end opted for the cheaper option and actually it wasn’t that bad.

We slept much of the way and when not sleeping I found the Stieg Larsson ‘Millenium’ book I am reading very engrossing. There wasn’t a toilet on board so the bus stopped every few hours, including a few hours for the border formalities, which meant we could stretch our legs.

We arrived in Vientiane, which is Laos capital city, around 15:00 this afternoon and we were immediately struck by how quiet it is compared to a Hanoi – it looks like Laos is much more chilled that bustling ‘Nam!

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam, a place where anything is possible, and you can see some of the photos from our time there here.