1. A boozy cruise down the Mekong
The start of many a backpacker’s journey to Laos begins on a boat. Most backpackers opt to avoid the long and rumored uncomfortable bus journey to cruise down the Mekong, docking in Luang Prabang instead. There are two boat options available. One is the speed boat, which is not only expensive, but also dangerous– visible by the motorcycle helmets passengers are required to wear on the journey. Obviously, the slow boat becomes the preferred option. The only downside is that it is slowwww. Two days slow.
Luckily for me, I had some great company to keep me entertained for the journey and we all had the same idea in mind– cards, whiskey, snacks and a good seat on the boat (in no particular order). The two full days on the boat were definitely not the most healthy, or mature by any means, but it sure was fun. Add some beautiful scenery pulling into Luang Prabang, and you get a unique and unforgettable experience- no matter how much whiskey was involved.
How you can do it: Many people make the trip from Chiang Mai or Pai to Luang Prabang. You can get the package trip for about 1600 Thai baht ($51). This includes a mini-bus to the border, one night’s stay there and 2 days on the boat. The mid-way stopping point in Laos is called Pakbeng where everyone disembarks the boat and finds accommodation independently for the night. There are many guesthouses to choose from so it isn’t something to fret over. The boat takes about 7 hours each day.
Tip: Get to the boat early to get a good seat! We found the seats in the front of the boat which face each-other to be the most comfortable and sociable. For people that happened to get one of the tiny, half-broken seats in the back, I felt sorry for them. They looked miserable and probably needed us to make them a strong drink.
2. Cheap eats
While I am no supporter of colonization, I sure do enjoy the influences on food this awful construct of modern history had. The crispy, doughy, white-bread baguette introduced by the French in Indochina makes for a plethora of sandwich stalls dotting the streets of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. For as little as 10,000 – 15,000 kip ($1.30-$1.90) you can choose a range of sandwiches; tuna to fried chicken to avocado and bacon. Accompany the sandwich with a cheap fruit shake (mango and apple became a refreshing and personal favorite) and you’ve got a perfect lunch.
Though many of the restaurants in Luang Prabang offer a huge range of decently priced fair, from Western to Thai, French to Laotian, there is one little alley near the night market that can’t be beaten for price. For 10,000 kip ($1.30) you can choose from 10+ vegetarian dishes to fill up your plate with as much carbs, veggies and fried spring rolls as possible. Though it is “all you can eat” you can’t take your plate back for more (as simon discovered with his ‘starter’ plate), so fill up wisely! Sometimes, the dishes were luke-warm and lacking a bit of seasoning, but the price can’t be bettered and this veggie buffet is one of the most popular dinner options for backpackers. Add a beer and some barbecued meat for another dollar or two and you are set for the rest of the night.
How you can do it: Sandwich stalls can be found all around Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, even late at night after the bars close. As for the veggie buffet, take a left after all the fruit smoothie stalls in the front of the night market. You should see the many different tables, offering basically the same dishes for the same price. Pick the one that looks best to you and grab a plate (but make sure they have a table to sit at for their stall! You can’t sit anywhere). Pay your 10,000 kip before finding a space on the picnic tables.
3. Crystal clear watering holes
Though landlocked by Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic isn’t lacking in swimming spots to cool down. Luang Prabang’s “must-go” place is the Kuang-si waterfalls about 30 km outside of town. Upon arrival, and after a strange walk through a random bear rescue center, the crystal clear blue pools become visible. Along the side of the pools and waterfalls is a small trail which takes you all the way up to the towering waterfall at the end. After a quick picture, make your way down to the pool of your choice and spend the afternoon swimming, swinging off the rope swings and climbing up the small falls.
In Vang Vieng, another swimming paradise can be found. A short ride outside of town through the towering limestone mountains of the countryside, lies a small but deep pool perfect for splashing around for the afternoon. There are also food options and shakes available which can be enjoyed on one of the many little picnic cabanas. If you happen to get bored of lounging in the sun and jumping off the tree into the water, rent a head lamp and explore the amazing large cave which is a short, but intense, hike uphill.
How you can visit: To get to both swimming spots, we rented semi-automatic motorbikes and made the trip. The roads weren’t too busy and neither were too far. It was a pretty safe and pleasant ride. While this is definitely the most fun way of getting to both, you can also get a tuk-tuk from the town. Semi-automatic bikes happen to be much cheaper than scooters in Laos, and they run from about 40,000 kip for a half-day to around 100,000 for a full day. Gas is cheap and should only cost 20,000-50,000 for the trip there and back. (If you have never driven a semi-automatic before, tell the guy and he’ll give you a demonstration. You can also practice at the unused airstrip nearby until you are comfortable)
4. Tame tubing
The days of Vang Vieng’s hedonistic large scale “tubing down the river” parties are now over. Before the government came in and shut down more than 20 bars, backpackers indulged in free shots, body paint, drinking games and adrenalin filled slides and swings that fired people into the river. As a result over 27 tourists died in 2011 and the government was pressured to make a change.
Many backpackers as a result, now decide to give Vang Vieng a miss on their SE Asia itinerary. This is such a mistake! I found post-crazy Vang Vieng to be extremely enjoyable, and now in my older (barely wiser age) I appreciated the fact that it was now safe and less of alcohol induced activity. The river is dotted with many rocks, and in the dry season the river gets pretty low revealing the boulders that lie below. It is easy to see why (and how) there were so many drunken accidents.
Another reason tubing is better without the raging party, the scenery is stunning…you wouldn’t want to forget it!
There are now three tubing, river-side bars open, with the first one being the best one. Most people get to it by or around noon, and spend and hour or so playing drinking games, or normal games like ping-pong, basketball and volleyball. The other two bars are just good stops to quench thirst or to get a beer “to-go”. The great thing about tubing now is that there is a choice for backpackers. People can choose to make it an alcohol-infused day–or not. Everyone is mostly just having good time cruising down the stretch of river with a beer (or two) in hand.
We had a great group of people that we had been traveling with for a bit of time, and we all floated down the river together, attaching ourselves to make one big raft, chatting, drinking, laughing and admiring our surroundings along the way.
How you can do it: Find a friend, or a group of them, and head to one of the two tubing stands on the main road in Vang Vieng. For 60,000 kip and another 60,000 kip deposit you are given a tube and taken to the start of the tubing portion of the river. You can rent dry bags, or buy them at numerous shops on the main road in Vang Vieng. Shoes can be left at the tubing office but they don’t claim responsibility for stolen ones. If you show up late to return your tube (usually 6pm) or enter shirtless or in your bikini (Lao people are very conservative) they will not return your deposit. Make sure to get out of the river, and catch the 10-15 tuk-tuk back to the office with enough time to arrive back for your deposit.
5. Late night bowling
The authorities in Luang Prabang devised a smart scheme to keep drunken tourists out of the streets late at night and to preserve the “small town” atmosphere. Introducing… the “bowling alley”. While, most bars in Luang Prabang are forced to close by 11:30pm, the bowling alley on the outskirts of town allows backpackers the ability to continue the party in the confines of an awfully lit, kind-of trashy, large and loud bowling alley. For these reasons, I not only found it hilarious, but loved it. We went to the bowling alley twice and had a great time bowling, drinking and watching fellow drunks stumble about, well into the wee hours of the night.
Now I can see how one might start to resent the place if they were to stay in Luang Prabang for an extended period of time, but it’s great for the few days usually spent in the town by backpackers. What’s even better is that the locals aren’t bothered by belligerent 20 somethings- roaming the streets for somewhere to go or something to do.
How you can do it: After exiting any of the bars in town, especially the popular “Utopia Bar”, many tuk-tuks will be ready to race you off to the bowling alley. If you happen to get in one of the first rides, you have the best chance of getting a lane early on. The tuk-tuk ride shouldn’t cost more than 10,000kip($1.30) per person (usually 5,000kip) and bowling costs about 40,000kip ($6-7) per person after midnight. Bottles of whiskey and beer are for sale, (each costing the same!?) and it shuts down around 2am.
6. Chilled-out cities
In between the craziness of Thailand, and the scooter madness of Vietnam, Laos is a welcome relief. Although landlocked, it feels more like a laid back island paradise than anything else. Even the capital city is chilled out compared to its neighbors. Bicycles and scooters are the main source of transportation, but traffic jams are something that just don’t seem to exist in Northern Laos.
Bougainvillea flowers hang from Luang Prabang’s colonial buildings that line the Mekong waterfront. Fisherman balance on small hollowed out canoes to fish down on the river. The locals sip beer Lao on small plastic stools and avoid the afternoon heat. Not too many Asian cities can be described as “quaint” but Luang Prabang fits that definition well. The gold lining on the ornate temples glimmer in the sun and surrounding palm trees sway in the wind. It’s doubtful there are too many other island paradises this far inland.
Vang Vieng takes on a different kind of laid-back, one that is more catered towards tourists. For the backpacker in the middle of a long trip it can be the perfect place to rest and unwind for a few days. A few different classic guilty pleasures play on large TV screens of the restaurants, and after a long bus journey or a big night out, hours can easily be spent watching a Friends marathon and eating a half decent version of you favorite food from home.
Now if you were wondering why I specified “Northern Laos”, well that’s because the rest of my time in the southern part of the country was one big mess up. After one side-trip didn’t work out, we spent two full days on local buses and a third in a mini-bus to finally reach our destination. But that’s a whole other story…
Have you ever considered visiting Laos? Would you want to now?
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