We packed our bags and took the 6 hour and £15 bus journey north towards the Laos border, bitter-sweet to be leaving Chiang Mai but looking forward to what Laos had to offer. The journey was pretty straight forward and took us to Chiang Khong which is on the Thai border of the Mekong looking over at Laos, nice little place just a pity we had the one night and were up at 6am to try hitch a ride to the border crossing and opted for a tuk-tuk. The crossing is about 20 minutes away from Chiang Khong and cost around 100 Thb, filled in the usual departure visa and then had to hop on another bus to the Laos immigration office (having to pay for the shuttle bus which was going to become a prominent feature in Laos). We were under the impression that it may be the same lax attitude at the border as Thailand, unfortunately there are two forms and a hard copy of a Passport Photograph required, that’s what we get for not researching I suppose. The visa office ask for 25$ US for an entry fee or the latest Kip equivalent depending on the exchange rate, and of course extra for lack of photograph. After finally getting through we had our river guide with the bus ready at the other end to the start off point on the Mekong river cruise which departs from Houay Xai.
At least after all the hassle at border control we were pleasantly surprised to know that there had been a delay with another party and it turned out it was only us 2 and 2 other bodies from Amsterdam on the 2 day cruise which put our minds at ease as we thought it might have been a party boat and I would have to done the suspenders and heels (hopefully Megan had hers too). Must have been around 32 degrees and the roof was raised, literally not figuratively no glow sticks or Calvin Harris involved, and we floated down away from the roads and avoiding the monotonous airport check in and being treated like a criminal not to mention shelling out nearly £20 for a packet of Jambon flavoured crisps.
We used Shompoo cruises as our naval vessel, would highly recommend them if your planning on doing the same trip… ‘Shompoo’ means pink in Laos but fear not guys, there’s no repeats of the kardashians or pedicures handed out…..they didn’t take any of my suggestions 🙂 After 8 hours sailing, the first night you anchor up in the tiny village of Pak Beng (be sure to book early as there re not many places to stay at present but there are hotels being built as we speak), which were pretty sure is run by children…yep genuinely like walking into the set of Bugsy Malone as we were shown to our room by an 8 year old gangster and checked out by either his concubine or little sister I’m still not sure which one. It’s probably the most remote little quaint village we’ve been too and pretty picturesque to be honest, there are no shops just rows of oreo’s outside the shanty’s that these very friendly locals lived in, a few places to sit in and eat and a few hotels but we must admit, although these people have nothing….were pretty envious of the simplicity of there life in this beautiful country, they don’t care what day it is or what Phil Mitchel is eating for his tea down east end just happy living a peaceful life in tranquillity…well until us stupid looking tourists wash up on their turf but hopefully they appreciate the few buck we bring along with us. We hopped back on the boat in the early hours and were on our way to Luang Prabang via a couple stop offs to the Buddha caves and to a small village that brews its own whisky…straight up my street…a Scotsman…and whisky…the village must have been rubbing there hands together. Little did this village know that I’m a huge blouse who cant handle Whisky so when offered, I stood tall puffed out my chest……then hid behind Megan and declined..
We arrived a Luang Prabang, the little Parisian town and I had some serious man points to make up after the whisky incident, we hired a scooter and braved the manic South east Asia roads and headed for Kuang Si waterfall, definitely a must when in the small town and an eye opener on how the sun and moon bears are treated here. Although Laos is considered a poor country, we are not sure how as compared to Thailand its pretty expensive to eat at the mini marts or at the restaurants, don’t get us wrong its still not ridiculous compared to prices in western Europe but you may need to stretch the budget a bit here. You can, however, destroy a buffet for around £1.50 from the street market which was pretty tasty albeit cold. Great place to stop off for a few nights with 1 local gym and a nightly food market. It’s divided by two rivers and has a fantastic viewpoint up around 330 steps in the middle of the town where you can watch the sunset/sunrise. Unfortunately we didn’t get to witness any of this as it was raining the 3 days we were there, good job we still had the lifejackets and hence why there are not a lot of photographs but we would definitely pay it another visit for its relaxing atmosphere and European feel.
We decided to take the 7 hour bus to Vang Vieng, for around 150,000Kip which included pick up although we were not funnily enough, which we found out was the worst bus journey we have ever done. Don’t get us wrong the scenery is breath-taking in Laos but you are up and down mountains zig zagging the whole way…and we mean the whole way, not including the 3 hour delay cause a HGV had gone over the cliff and had to be pulled up but the loggers, thankfully they used the trucks and let the elephants sit this one out. There were that many people being sick on the bus that the driver started handing out life vests and was sat in the front seat with a pair of flippers and snorkel on. The drivers will naturally stop at the little toilet stations that they have some allegiance to so that you can buy what’s on offer from the shed, usually just packets of crisp, but you get to pee in a hole for your troubles. Vang Vieng was discovered by backpackers on their way to Vantiene from Luang Prabang and decided to stop over and, as such, have created this pretty unique little adventure town with spectacular natural caves, blue lagoons, tubing, zip lining and kayaking can be done, most of these activities the guides try and sell as tour packages with pick-ups etc but if your like us we tend to just hire a scooter and try do it ourselves so were in control of how long we spend doing what. We decided to do the caves and drove the 16km north to find the opening marked ‘elephant cave’ (it is very easy to miss so keep your eye out for the small sign). It was pretty mobbed with tour groups and we were led through the water cave on a rubber ring by an elderly man who I’m pretty sure may have actually witnessed the fall of the roman empire, a very adorable old man but must have been at least 102 years old. You have the option to harness up and zip line through the trees as well as a unique blue lagoon you can Kayak over just a 5 minute walk from the cave entrance. Would recommend the private tour of the cave and for only 20,000Kip they give you a tube and a head torch to pull your way through deep into the pitch black cave. Old man mountain Pete did have his paw out at the end but was only 100,000Kip and well earned to be fair, it also helped avoid the big tour groups which were 10+ bodies crashing into each other and we also went straight to the end of the cave and turned off the head torches and the realisation of how dark and scary this tunnel can be, we headed back after all the screaming as Megan couldn’t listen to me anymore 🙂 Kayaking down the Nam Song is a lot of fun, although its the dry season and the river was pretty low (resulting in me having to jump out a few times to push us over the shallows as Megan elegantly put it “it’s your fat ass that’s capsizing us”….I had a paddle in hand and it would only take one swing 🙂 ) but its scenery is stunning and you paddle past a lot of drunken, floating what can only be described as semi conscious foetuses.
Although we loved this little town there is not much there and the mini marts don’t house much at all but this river town is a must in Laos, the only thing we could really say negatively about it is its view on tourist and that the try and charge for everything, they even charge for going over there bamboo bridges and actually have stall in place to charge cyclists…yes cyclists to park their bikes in the middle of nowhere. You should also beware of scammers trying to charge for parking your scooter as some local chancers will try pretend they are some kind of parking enforcement, the bloke who tried it with us was shown the business end of a middle digit and wandered off to his next victim without protest. There are many signs around to notify visitors to cover up and not walk around topless, unfortunately we went for an afternoon jog and did not see this with the tops off, we could see the confused looks from the locals at this hideous sight…so i told Megan to cover herself up 🙂 I’m only kidding, hope she’s not reading this far.
The bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiene was a lot more straightforward and only 4 hours long and if were being honest that’s probably the same amount of time required to actually see Vientiene as its mainly just the banking hub for the not so recently independent Laos. We took a wander at night down to the busy hub but was not very exiting, they put on a big outdoor market south of the city but it pretty much epitomises the saying in south east Asia ‘Same Same …..but different’.
We hopped on the plane after one night and were headed to North Vietnam….