Getting to Laos from Vietnam wasn’t as straight forward as you would think. Sure, you could take an hour flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. That sounds easy. But in this case, easy meant expensive. So what did we do instead? The next logical option. Take a two hour plane ride from Hanoi to Bangkok, an overnight train ride from Bangkok to the border of Laos, a mini train ride over the border, and a 20 minute minibus ride into Vientiane. Money saved? Probably around $100 USD. Worth it? Heck yeah, why not? That goes straight into the coffee budget!
We spent a total of 12 days in Laos. This broke down to 3 days in Vientiane, 3 days in Vang Vieng, 4 days in Luang Prabang, and 2 days on a slow boat to north Thailand. I would say these are the major tourist destinations for Laos. We definitely could have done more but by this point in our trip we had pretty firm time allotments for each country and we decided we were okay “only” seeing these three places. Overall, I’m happy with how it worked out.
When I think of Vientiane, a few things come to mind.
- Heat that could kill you. I’m not even being a weeny northern Minnesotan here. The heat index was 117 degrees on the day we tried touristy activities (and by touristy activities I mean visiting a sand sculpture competition.. which meant walking around a sandy river plain with no shade in the blistering heat. Real smart move.) We lasted about 40 minutes before escaping to an air conditioned coffee shop for hours.
- A lot of NGOs meaning a lot of trendy-ish expensive (relatively) Western restaurants. We checked out Comma Coffee and Common Grounds. Both were fine. Good even. It was just strange to see so many Western-style joints. We want Laos in our first stop in Laos!
- Mediocre haircuts and massages. Get your massages in Thailand or Ubud people. Laos is mediocre. I tried both a cheap place and an “expensive” place. The cheap place was absolutely terrible and the expensive place was decent. Neither were worth it, though. As for Sam’s hair cut? It was at the same establishment where I got the cheap massage. Maybe it should have been a red flag that you could pick your masseuse based on a line up of photos on the wall. Were we at a “happy endings” establishment? We’ll never know. But we can speculate.
- Hash House Harriers (HHH). There is a pretty established HHH group in Vientiane. I could call it a running group, but it is really so much more than that. I’m not going to fully explain it (that’s what Google is for), but basically it a running group with a preset path that no one knows about (except the person who set it) and everyone has to try to figure it out. Part running, part problem solving. After the run there are various shenanigans involving songs and drinking. It is pretty wild. The run itself was amazing. It allowed us to go through an abandoned field and multiple small neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. We saw things we never would have seen otherwise which was super cool. Are we cut out to be full time Hashers? Probably not. We’re kind of squares and Hashers are definitely not, but it was a really fun experience. Our run data is HERE.
- Super nice luxury mini bus to Vang Vieng. By far the nicest mini bus we were in during the whole six months. We had a ton of room (with the driver only letting on the appropriate amount of people) and the air conditioning worked wonderfully.
There were the other standard things for a Southeast Asian town. There was a pretty standard night market where we got these HUGE kabob sandwiches. The experience was delightfully different than Vietnam. The vendor wouldn’t stop putting toppings on our sandwich. It was so big that it was actually difficult to eat. Cheers to you, kabob man! There was also a river running through the town (the Mekong), and a nice pedestrian area along the river as we’ve seen in many of the towns. We were able to get a run in there. Strava data is HERE.
Vang Vieng has an interesting backstory. It used to be known as the hedonistic backpacker destination of Southeast Asia. It was a mixture of outdoor activities (mostly involving floating down a river), partying (read: alcohol and drugs). Maybe not an ideal combination you may be thinking? Yeah, you’d be right. In 2011, Vang Vieng’s hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths due to either drowning or diving headfirst into rocks (via Wikipedia). A doctor at the hospital reported the number is probably higher since many cases go straight to the hospital in Vientiane. And these are only the ones that died!
And the drugs being used weren’t only your “gateway” drugs. They were mostly opiates (which are widely produced in this small area of the world – the Golden Triangle as it is known). This area of Southeast Asia doesn’t mess around. As you may have guessed, this had a disastrous effect on many of the locals living in Vang Vieng. Many avoided the river completely (which had been an integral part of their daily lives for so long). The main street changed to party hostels and restaurants offering “happy” specials on their menus. I can’t say I’d like it very much if that happened to my home. Thankfully, the Laos government stepped in in 2012, and cracked down on much of this activity. There is still rafting on the river, but it is much more controlled. We didn’t see evidence of drugs at all except for one restaurant that had a “Bob Marley Pizza” that three times the price of the other pizzas (which I would say is still a pretty good deal! JOKING PEOPLE!)
So! Since we weren’t doing drugs and jumping into boulder strewn waters, what were we doing you may ask? All sorts of fun things! We went rock climbing, rode crappy bikes to the Blue Lagoon, admired the huge limestone cliffs surrounding the town, and ate some delicious food! We were considering going on a kayaking trip down the river, but the river was way too low to make for an enjoyable (for us) trip.
- Rock Climbing. We went through Adam’s Climbing School. We chose the half day option, and it was about $22.50 USD per person (cheap!). I had so much fun!!! We reviewed some basic climbing things (tying ropes, belaying, etc.), then we were kind of let loose. I don’t think it would have met US safety standards (like… you’re just going to let me climb that huge wall with Sam belaying me just because he said he knows how to belay? Okay!) but overall I think they did a wonderful job. They helped me work on belaying Sam (which is super hard for me mostly because he outweighs me by a bit), and we got quite a few climbs in.
- Blue Lagoon. We rented crappy road bikes on the main street in town and rode the 14 km or whatever to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a spring fed swimming hole. It has some swings and points where you can jump off into the water. We were a little worried it was going to be a drunken backpacker party, but it really wasn’t. There were some people having a few drinks, but I would say it was family appropriate. We were there in the morning though, so maybe that had something to do with it. With a heat index topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the water felt incredible. I had to drag Sam away.
- Huge Limestone Cliffs. Just soak it in.
- Food. Although Vang Vieng had a lot of Western food, we also got to try some Laotian food. We found this little restaurant near our hotel (which was on the outskirts of town), and the man didn’t speak a lick of English. But pointing seemed to work! We went there a few times getting different variations of the same things. The first thing is Laap, which is minced meat with spices and herbs and is eaten with sticky rice. So good. The second thing was papaya salad. Papaya salad is julienned papaya, long beans, tomatoes, and delicious tangy and spiciness. My mouth is watering right now thinking about it. We tried several other places in town, but the only other one worth mentioning is the SAELAO Farm Restaurant. This restaurant was out by the Blue Lagoon. The food was really good. You can also volunteer there which seemed pretty cool.
Luang Prabang is the jewel of Laos (and maybe even Southeast Asia). In the travel community it has an aura of charm around it. When you say you are going to Luang Prabang to someone, the response is usually something like, “Aww! I LOVE Luang Prabang!” We had somewhat high expectations, and I would say they were somewhat satisfied.
The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is full of old French architecture and is also home to a bunch of beautiful wats (temples, yo). On the natural side, the city sits on the Mekong river, is surrounded by some beautiful green mountains and is close to gorgeous waterfalls. Probably the most famous draw in the city is the procession of monks collecting their alms very early each morning. This happens all over Southeast Asia (in any Buddhist area), so I’m not sure why it became such a thing in Luang Prabang, but it did. Basically, monks go out in the community to collect “alms” or food from Buddhist followers. The food provided to the monks is what they eat for the day (or they also give some to other monks/nuns). Through this process, Buddhist followers earn some sort of “merit”. I’d be lying if I said I knew all the details of this process, but that’s what I learned from a high level.
I had very mixed feelings about this being a “tourist attraction”. We’d been hearing some pretty irritating stories about people getting right in the monks faces to take pictures. Also, tourists (who are not Buddhist and have no education about the history of the practice or the intention that goes along with it) have started offering alms to the monks. We saw examples of both of these instances while we were there which made us cringe. Although we watched the alms procession from very far away, we did it with mixed feelings. I love watching the monks do anything because they just look so regal, but there is a point where you’re detracting from the very cultural experience you want to be a part of. I thought THIS post did a good job of summing up how we felt.
Besides the alms ritual, we had the following other takeaways from Luang Prabang:
- Night Craft Market. We heard that the Luang Prabang night market was supposed to be better (more authentic) than others in Southeast Asia, but it seemed the same to us. Maybe we missed something here?
- Food Stalls/Markets.
- There seemed to be tourist and local aspects to the food market. There were tourist friendly options with signs written in English. We tried a buffet one night (this is a ‘thing’ in Luang Prabang), and it was fine. The next night we went to a stand that seemed to serve a mix of locals and tourists. We tried two kinds of sausage as we heard this was a Laos specialty. I really enjoyed one of the sausages – it was filled with herbs and had a ton of flavor.
- There were also stalls where only the locals stopped. These places were cheaper, had no English signs, and had bowls of things that most tourists wouldn’t even assume to be food. We watched the lady working at this stand package up tons of bags of green sludge for locals. It looked terrible, but I want to know what it was!
- Early on the morning we watched the alms, we saw a pop-up stall on a corner selling porridge with meat bits. It seemed pretty legit so we gave it a try. It was mostly locals. Tasted good enough to me and it was super cheap! So I guess there are some cheap local options in Laos, they are just a bit harder to find in the tourist part of Luang Prabang.
- There is a LOT of Western food that is SUPER (relatively) expensive. Joma is a well known Western coffee shop. We found it ridiculously expensive compared to other places in SE Asia, and the portions were quite small. We also tried Saffron for breakfast. It had good coffee, but we found the food to be just okay and expensive. Even the sandwich stands on the side of the road were expensive! We did find a super delicious bakery that was worth the expense though. I don’t know. It’s hard. Can you really fault them for having so much expensive Western food in the touristy area of a huge destination in SE Asia? I don’t think that’s fair. It was just strange after our experiences in other countries. But we could have tried harder to venture out from this area, too.
- Wats, wats, wats! So many wats. Fancy wats, old wats, little wats.
- We took a minivan to Kuang Si waterfall. It was a windy hour drive, but the waterfall was absolutely gorgeous. You had to walk up a path through layers of the waterfall, and every one was beautiful. I recommend hiking to the top as well. However, do NOT hike to the “waterfall source” which is a few kilometers away. Complete waste of time. Another bonus of the Kuang Si waterfall is the sun bear sanctuary within the enclosure. Well worth a visit.
- We climbed up a big hill right in town to see a Wat and to watch the sunset. It was a good climb with neat structures and things to see along the way. It provided a beautiful view of the sun setting over the Mekong and of the rest of Luang Prabang. It was ridiculously crowded, but we liked it. People watching was fun. What better than to enjoy a sunset with 100 other strangers? =)
- Nickle and Dimed. This seems silly now that we’re back in the US spending enormous amounts of money to do anything compared to what they cost in SE Asia, but at the time, it felt frustrating. In Luang Prabang, we started to get frustrated that everything seemed to cost a little bit. Want to walk across this bridge? Money please. Want to climb this hill? Money please. Want to walk through this wat? Money please. The amounts weren’t exorbitant, but it became frustrating. Especially when we were out on a run (without any cash), and we couldn’t get across any of the bridges. I feel like a jerk talking about it now (especially since we were just in a city in Colorado which charged to get to a waterfall), but it felt frustrating at the time.
- Runs. This continued to be our best way to get out of the tourist areas. We ran into quiet back road areas on both sides of town. We found old wats, monuments, and all sorts of local hangouts. Strava data is HERE and HERE.
Slowboat from Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai (Northern Thailand)
We spent our last two days in Laos on a slowboat slowly (surprised?) floating out of the country. Apparently, this is a big thing to do. However, more people do it in the Thailand-to-Luang Prabang direction. The Thailand-to-Luang Prabang option is all downstream, while Luang Prabang-to-Thailand is all upstream. So if the boat starting in Thailand is a slowboat, starting in Luang Prabang is a super slowboat. Couple this with the fact that we were getting closer to low tourist season and we decided to take a chance on the more budget friendly, local option. We heard the local option can be an absolute nightmare when it’s crowded. As in you likely won’t have seats, it will be uncomfortable, it could be dangerously overcrowded, etc. The alternative to the local option is something catered to Westerners and much more expensive (again, relatively). All this being said, we opted for the budget version and it worked out great!
We easily found seats on both days by coming a few minutes early. The boat had mostly locals and maybe 10 or so westerners. It was decently comfortable with the seats being old car seats or wooden seats. The scenery was nice – there were cliffs towards the beginning then hills shrouded in mist. We watched life float by slowly. There were naked kids playing in the river, people washing in the river, herds of goats scrambling on banks, and water buffaloes lounging out in or by the river. We saw many small fishing villages and fisherman out on boats. We stopped throughout the day on both days to let off locals, and by the end, it was mostly just Westerners.
One very sad thing for me was the amount of trash in the river. It was painfully common to see at least a piece or two of trash every time you looked out the boat window. Locals threw anything they didn’t want into the river. Finished with that coke? Throw the bottle overboard. Done eating fried rice out of that Styrofoam container? Into the river! I shuddered every time I saw it. There was a lot of shuddering.
Cost (per person)
We found this blog post extremely helpful in describing the process and prices associated with the Luang Prabang-to-Thailand slowboat. Some of the prices were slightly different (ours are below) and the water crossing they described in Huay Xai is no longer in use for tourists. You will need to take a taxi or songthaew to the land crossing which is several kilometers outside of town.
Tuktuk to pier in Luang Prabang = 20,000 kip
Slow boat to Pak Beng = 105,000 kip
Hotel in Pak Beng = 40,000 kip
Slow boat to Huay Xai = 110,000 kip
Total Cost = 275,000 kip (or about $35 USD)
Once we got to Huay Xai (at around 5:10pm), we decided to wait until the next day to cross the border into Thailand and bus to Chiang Rai. We didn’t think we’d make both the border crossing in time and find a bus to take us to Chiang Rai that night. Early the next morning, we started walking the (very long) way to the border. No tuk tuks would take us for the amount of money we had left, but then a songthaew (a kind of truck bus) stopped. We told him we only had a limited amount of kip left. He said he couldn’t take us for that. We said okay and kept walking. He then pulled back up to us and told us to get in. That’s bargaining in SE Asia for you. The other people in the songthaew were getting dropped of at a bus that would take them to the border, across the border, and on to Chiang Rai. How convenient, that’s where we want to go to. So, when the songthaew driver dropped of these folks (prior to the border), we jumped off too and asked if the bus would take us. Easy peasy, 2 hours later, we arrive in Chiang Rai.
- Flying from Vietnam definitely increased the ‘Getting there’ costs but if the alternative is a 30 hour bus ride I’m A-OK with that trade.
- Danielle’s massage fund is camouflaged as ‘Misc’ costs.
- While the ‘Eat’ line item is not drastically higher than the other countries listed above it does not have any large items that need to be accounted for. For example – Malaysia has our ‘Dining in the Dark’ meal included which was $75 USD for one meal. Moral of the story – Laos had expensive food for SE Asia.