Laos is one of my favourite destinations in Southeast Asia. I found the people incredibly hospitable, the landscape some of the most scenic in the world, and the cost of travelling there so affordable.
There are different ways to see the country, of course, and here are three of them. We all entered Laos from Thailand. Barb and Ben Dietrich crossed at Chiang Khong in northern Thailand and took a two-day boat ride down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. This has long been a popular route for backpackers. Their boat was seriously overcrowded and without life jackets, however, and the trip one that Barb says she will “never forget”.
Ron Perrier crossed the Mekong River on the newly opened bridge that replaced the ferry crossing from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos. He then took a bus northeast to Luang Namtha to do some trekking.
I opted to take a plane from Chiang Mai, Thailand right to Luang Prabang, Laos.
Many foreign travellers choose to fly within Laos because the roads are in terrible shape—narrow, twisting and full of potholes. But Ron and I both travelled by road, Ron using local buses and me travelling in shuttle vans that cover the popular tourist routes.
Ron usually travels very inexpensively, staying in hostels, eating as the locals do, and he followed that pattern in Laos. I took advantage of the lower prices and generally upgraded my accommodation.
All of us spent time in Luang Prabang, Ron getting there from Luang Namtha on what he describes as a public day bus: “After changing tires and getting gas, we were guaranteed to arrive in the dark after the 10 hour bus ride” but he “easily found a room and visited the night food stalls offering all sorts of cheap food.”
Luang Prabang is a charming, stay-awhile sort of place on the Mekong River about 425 km north of Vientiane. It was once the capital of Laos and today is considered one of the best-preserved towns in Southeast Asia with its blend of traditional and French colonial architecture. It is also well known for the seemingly endless line of monks that gather each morning for the alms gathering ceremony.
Ron ventured outside the town itself, visiting the Pak Ou Caves that are 35 km upriver on the Mekong. “These two limestone caves contain hundreds of Buddha images. The upstream trip took about 2 hours and on the way we stopped at a small village, basically a large market. One building contained several large glass jars full of endangered animals, each with its own species – snakes, lizards, bear paws and other unrecognized critters. They were destined for the Chinese natural medicine market.” He thought the caves were “hardly worth the effort” and that the tour was “more about the river voyage”. In the afternoon he went to Kuang Si Falls, about a half-hour drive out of Luang Prabang where “high multi-tiered falls cascade over limestone formations. After the main falls, the river continues over multiple terraces and pools where most people swam.” This was a “worthwhile trip,” says Ron, “and possibly the highlight of the Luang Prabang area.”
The next stop for both Ron and me was Phonsavan, a 7-hour plus trip on a road that “crosses a very rugged set of mountains with steep, deep canyons,” says Ron. As you ride along you oversee everyday life: thatched-roof houses made of wooden slates and without windows built up against the road; tiny children wandering about on their own, chickens scratching every surface, goats bleating, people bathing at the communal tap.
Americans dropped million of bombs on Phonsavan during the Vietnam War. Today visitors go to see huge stone jars that have been mysteriously scattered in fields there. I was fortunate in hiring a great guide and driver who also took me to a Hmong village and to a cousin’s Buddhist wedding.
The road from Phonsavan down the mountain to Vang Vieng is called the most scenic drive in Southeast Asia. Vang Vieng itself is breathtaking, with the Nam Song River running through it and limestone karsts as the backdrop. This town was famous as a party place for backpackers tubing down the river, often intoxicated. The situation is now under greater control but still a place for caving and kayaking, which is what Barb and Ben did.
Ron skipped Vang Vieng and went right to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, on a sleeper bus. “I thought I had seen every type of bus before, but this one was unusual. Most sleeper buses have two tiers of bunks with singles on one side and doubles on the other. Here there was a narrow aisle and two narrow double bunks, which meant that you would be sleeping side by side with a complete stranger. They were also only five feet long! Lao people are short.”
Ron’s stay in Vientiane seemed similar to mine, visiting temples and museums and the Buddha Park. While I found a small French restaurant where I had dinner each evening, he came upon Ray’s Grill, “owned by a guy from Seattle who has been in the same location for 27 years” for what was “one of the best burgers I have had in my life”.
Barb, Ben and I ended our Laos journeys in Vientiane but Ron continued south, first to Kong Lo Cave, about 1½ hour off the main road where there are “huge limestone cliffs… with ridges of jagged pinnacles and spires”. There is a 7.5 km underground river there and he rented a small long-tail boat for a 3-hour ride that he describes as a “spectacle that deserves to be on the 7 Natural Wonders of the World list” and was easily the best thing that he had seen in Laos.
From there he took a 9-hour truck and then bus ride south to the city of Pakse where travellers go to “explore the Bolevan Plateau, a coffee and tea growing area with waterfalls and ethnic village visits”. Then it was a 2-hour ride in a minivan and a short boat ride to Don Det in the Four Thousand Islands. “The Mekong River is massive here and braids through thousands of islands, most tiny and tree covered. The three islands with villages here are Don Knong, Don Khon (both quiet) and Don Det (supposedly the party town)… The only real activity is renting a bike to ride through endless rice paddies to some waterfalls.”
From Vientiane I flew to Cambodia and Barb and Ben to Viet Nam, while Ron caught a boat across the Mekong from Don Det, “filled out all the paperwork for the Cambodian Visa and 2-1/2 hours later was finally through immigration”. Then it was “a tedious 14-hour bus ride to Siem Reap, the access town for Angkor Wat. The roads were initially disastrous. The pavement was broken every 200 m with rough potholed gravel, then construction and finally quasi-smooth pavement. Arriving after midnight with no sleep, my hotel was supposedly full and the clerk said he had no record of me. I persisted, showed the email confirmation of my booking, found my name in their book and a bed appeared. A less than auspicious introduction to Cambodia.”
Ron Perrier’s travel blog
Barb and Ben Dietrich’s trip through Laos
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014