We had not originally planned to travel to Laos but so many of our friends and other travelers along our way kept telling us not to miss it. So in the end we decided to go by squeezing in 7 days that we didn’t really have and wow, it was definitely worth it!
Filed Under: Laos by Katrine December 21, 2012, 08:32
When we planned the Asian part of our trip we never thought about including Laos. Not because we had anything against Laos or going there, we just didn’t know much about it and just assumed that it would be very similar to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam that we were going to see anyway. But as we where leaving several of our friends told us to not miss Laos because it was such an amazing and friendly place and once we started travelling many fellow travellers we met along the way said exactly the same. So while in Thailand we decided to scrape some days from the Thailand and Cambodia parts and do a detour to Laos!
We landed in Luang Prabang in the late afternoon arriving from Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. We where supposed to have gone into Laos via bus and then speedboat, until we made a quick check online to see some reviews about that method of travel. All we could find was horror stories about small, noisy and dangerous wooden speedboats and how the passengers had to wear crash helmets and sit with the knees under ones chin and get soaked for the 10 hour trip up the Mekong river. Apparently it was common with crashes when the boat hit debris in the fast flowing current and the passengers end up in the water.. We wanted to see Laos but not enough to risk our lives, so we took the extra cost and flew there instead.
After going through a quick process of immigration and getting our visas we headed for the airport ATM to get some Laos kip. A thick pile of 50 000 notes made up the 1 000 000 kip that was the maximum you could withdraw! Ah, so this is what it felt like to hold one million in your hands! Until we had to pay 50 000 for a shared taxi into town we enjoyed our 2 minutes of being millionaires
Luang Prabang was a very picturesque little town mixed with French colonial style wooden houses and Buddist temples. Our hotel was a brand new place in a beautiful yellow mansion style house and the rooms where tastefully decorated in dark wood and massive beds! This was definitely a good start to our stay in Laos!
After checking out the tour boutiques along the main shopping street we had decided we wanted to do some trekking, see at least one of the many waterfalls and we really wanted to see the relatively unknown “Plains of Jars”. Since we only had a total of 7 days to get through the whole north part of Laos and get to Vientiane to cross the border into Thailand we soon realised we had to stick with relatively few things to do. The main reason was that the only really true way of getting through Laos was to use buses, and buses are very slooow
Early next morning we packed our daypacks with water, cameras and swimming clothes and headed off to meet our guide for the one day trek we were going to take around Luang Prabang. Laos is covered in rolling hills and mountains full of dense rainforest and rivers and trekking is definitely the thing to do. We where in a small group of just 5 people including our guide and after a short trip on a long boat to cross River Kahn our trek started with some muddy slopes going up the hillside into the forest. Luckily for us it hadn’t rained for a couple of days which made the muddy path slightly more steady than it normally would be. And we had the added bonus of the absence of leeches since it was too dry for the little blood suckers. Once the sun peaked out from behind the clouds it turned out to be a perfect day for trekking.
Our guide Nick explained about the people of Laos and said there where three distinct groups, the Khmu, the Hmong and the Lao people. He himself belonged to the Khmu and we visited one of the Khmu villages to have lunch during our walk. The children of the basic but quite large village were collecting tamarind fruit from a nearby tree while we had our tasty lunch in the shade of a veranda style seating area. The oldest boy was daringly climbing down the branch-less and smooth tree trunk holding on with only one arm since he kept the fruit neatly tucked in under his shirt with the other one. As soon as he reached the ground the younger kids eagerly gathered around him to get a piece of fruit to munch on.
At the end of the trek we reached the Tad Sae waterfalls, an amazingly minty green blue looking water stream that ended in a cascade of small waterfalls edged with smooth and almost fake looking lime stone rock. We just couldn’t resist to jump into the freezing but soothing water for a well earned break from the humidity and heat.
That night we met up with Jorge whom we had accidentally run into while visiting the grand palace in Thailand the week before. When he said he was heading for Luang Prabang in Laos the same time as us we couldn’t miss the opportunity to meet up over a cold beer and some great food to catch up. It’s a very small world we live in sometimes!
After a few days in Luang Prabang visiting the colourful night market and trying out the delicious food in the local food market it was time to pack up and take a minibus to Phonsavan in the East part of the North of Laos. While in Phonsavan we were going to look for a guide or tour of some sort to visit the Plains of Jars that we had heard so much about. The Plains of Jars are dozens of sites in the eastern part of Laos where hundreds of carved out jars/urns have been found. Some of the jars are huge measuring a good couple of meters in height. Some are squarish, some are tall and some are short. According to local people the jars are part of a story about an ancient king who had the jars cut from rocks and filled with rice whiskey to give to his soldiers for celebrating victory in some war. One of the biggest jars on site no 1 was also named Kings cup and was said to be the cup carved for the king himself. According to scientists there are still different theories what the jars were used for but after finding some artifacts and human bones in a one of the areas there are guesses that the jars are in fact burial grounds.
We joined up with some fellow travelers we met on the bus going to Phonsavan and had a great tour the next day seeing the Jars in site 1 & 2 and had a look at a local rice wine farm and a Hmong village where a lot of the structures of the buildings where made from old bomb shells. We also visited a field with three huge craters in it. Our guide told us it was bomb craters from the Vietnam war. We looked around over the rice fields and meadows around us and as far as our eyes could see there were masses of craters staining the landscape like open wounds. The remnants from the 3 000 000 US bombs dropped in Laos during the Vietnam war…
We left Phonsavan the following day on a big, local bus to get to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Again we joined up with Dave and Mart, our new friends from the previous days of busing and touring. The difference between the big local bus and the smaller minibus we had taken a couple of days earlier soon got obvious when we started stopping every 100 meters or so to pick up new passengers and cargo. The cargo being anything from huge rice sacks, to heavy boxes with unknown contents and the occasional woven basket stuffed with stressed out chickens. Oh, and they had a video karaoke system that they turned on instantly once we left. We could tell that this 10 hour trip would be something special indeed The most interesting part was when we got near a big river and instead of crossing the bridge that went over it, the bus suddenly headed down the embankment next to the bridge! The 3 guys working on the bus quickly jumped off and started moving the cargo from the compartments underneath the bus to inside the bus. Rob suddenly said “I think they are going to drive through the river”! And yes, a couple of minutes later we drove through the river with us nervously giggling at such an unthinkable move!
We arrived safely and with a great feeling of adventure in Vientiane that evening and spent the last hours eating and chatting with our fellow travellers before we split up to our different hotels and different destinations for the following day. For us this was goodbye to Laos and the next day we headed on a tuktuk to the border to Thailand where we crossed into the sleepy town of Nong Khai. When the night train to Bangkok drove into the station we soon settled for yet another night going through the Thai countryside while snoring away in the 2nd class sleeper births.
Laos turned out to be the most fun adventure in this part of the world so far and we are so glad that we decided to go after all. What a fantastic week!
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