Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and a slow boat to the border.
05.08.2011 - 17.08.2011 32 °C
We had treated ourselves to a flight rather than take up a whole day getting from Hanoi to Vientiane. The flight with Laos Airlines was smooth and we checked into Aroon Residence in the evening. Unfortunately for us the put us in a room beside reception/the breakfast room so we were rudely awakened the next day. However, after we checked in we decided to give a quick cruise down town to get some food. The Lonely Planet recommended a French Restaurant, Le Provencal. We were on an Italian buzz though so Stuart had pizza and I had pasta, both of which were delicious...the reason I mention this specific meal was the restaurant was actually really nice, it had good music on, albeit Christmas tunes at points but the outstanding moment of the meal was when a rather large brown rat scurried across the floor. It only freaked me a little, maybe a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5...just shows what travelling does to your perception of things. I'd still recommend the restaurant.
First impressions of Laos were good. No major pushiness from hotel staff or tuk tuk drivers. The streets are cleaner than the other SE Asian countries we've been to and the silence is almost deafening – no horn blowing bonanza going on. Just generally more chilled, which is good. Our first day in Vientiane was filled with Stuart getting a hair cut in a place that, to name but a few services; rents motor bikes, sells books, books tours and transport, does massage and hair removal. I nearly cracked up laughing when I saw the matriarch bouncing between the house where she was cutting Stu's hair (evident from the off-white bib she was wearing) and next door to sell cigarettes to people. This was only topped off by Dad or grandad or whoever it was, lying about in the back of the shop letting out a roar every few mins. Ahh, Asia.
We visited the National Museum that day, a mixed up kinda place which for us would have benefitted from some more English information on the exhibits but it was worth a gander. They had some actual dinosaur bones and other bits and bobs that had been dug up in excavations around the country. They also had an example of one of the 'jars' from the Plain of Jars – a sight in Laos that we weren't going to get to so that was good. It included lots of other historical items and spent quite some time looking at the struggle for independence. It also dealt briefly with the issue of unexploded bombs which were dropped by America during 'The Secret War' but more on that later.
That evening we went to a charity event we had seen advertised. It was being run by the local university to raise funds to open a legal advice clinic for people who couldn't afford their own. We sat through a rather drawn out presentation and then listened to a Chilean guy play guitar averagely for an hour – it was okay but not exactly the night of 'music and fun' we were promised. Oh well, onto the pub; Bor Pen Nyang, which was pretty cool actually and really busy, only problem is everything closes around 11.30pm so that was us.
We had managed to move rooms so got a sleep in that Sunday which was needed after quite a few Beer Laos the night before. Beer Laos by the way is our favourite beer in SEA, it costs between 80p and £1.60 for a 660ml bottle so cheap as chips really. The Swedish Bakery was our port of call for lunch, a must for anyone visiting Vientiane. The smell of quality coffee hits you when you get in the door and their salads and subs are fabulous, check it out.
We had planned to stay in Vientiane for 3 nights but we realised as we were going to be in Thailand for more than 30 days and we were travelling over a land border (where they only issue 15 day visas) we would have to go to the embassy and apply for a 60 day one. This meant we had to stay another night, possible 2 depending on whether we got back from the embassy on time to get a bus to Vang Vieng. So Monday morning we headed to the embassy, it's a fairly hectic place when we arrived we got ticket number 184 and they were on something like 54. Luckily someone who had to leave handed us his ticket, 94, things were looking better. We were probably only there an hour and a half in total, sent away and told to come back between 1 and 3pm the next day. On the way home we took a detour by the Arc De Triomphe of Vientiane, Patuxai, it was built to commemorate those who died in prerevolutionary wars. Funnily it was built with cement sent by the USA for the building of an airport and ex-pats call it the 'vertical runway'.
That afternoon we went to see Wat Si Saket, it's quite a nice Wat. There's tons of buddha statues on show here including damaged ones which are interesting in their own right. It's a pretty little place worth a visit if you're in town.
Shockingly, Laos is the most aerial bombed country, in relation to it's land mass, in the world – this happened when they were neutral – doesn't sound right does it? Did you know that or ever hear of it? It made me think if someone dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Ireland 40 years ago would we have heard of that? Damn right, the whole world would. Anyway, it's estimated a third of these bombs never exploded on impact, for whatever reason. Now, daily people get blown up by simply treading on them or hitting them with some farming instrument. What's more devastating is some people seek them out to earn a living. They actually hire or buy metal detectors to find these items so they can sell them as scrap metal. It beggars belief. We heard one story of a boy who snuck out with his mates after a group of men who were on one such trip. The older men recognised that some of the bombs were still armed and placed them aside. However, the kids didn't know this and one of them picked one up, it blew up. The kid in question was badly injured but didn't die instantly, he was transported to no less than 3 different hospitals, none of which could offer him blood or oxygen. The family took him home because the truck driver they hired to transport him to hospital didn't want him to die in his truck. He died later at home. It's mad. Anyway, that is just one horrific story. There's a facility at the centre where you can watch documentaries from around the world on the subject, we watched a BBC short which we think might have been made for Children in Need and followed this with an Australian documentary which followed the work of Liath, a bomb disposal expert. He's living in Laos permanently disposing of these bombs and trying to train individuals from the different provinces in bomb disposal. It was really interesting if you can get your hands on it and this guy was just a credit to his country. His patience was remarkable. In one clip he was trying to remove a bomb from about 50m outside a village, there was a funeral in the village that day and, as per their custom, the only thing that could be carried was the body of the deceased. They had to drag the live bomb instead of carry it because of village custom. Remarkable.
Back to COPE; the main work they do is helping those who have lost limbs and need rehabilitation and most often a prosthetic limb or limbs. They tailor make the limbs and help with the training and rehabilitation of the people who come to them. It costs them only about £30 to build a prosthetic leg which can change a life. It is really inspiring stuff they are doing. The actual exhibition is really interactive and interesting and there isn't any entrance fee, they simply ask you to donate some money to their cause; admittedly an extremely worthy one. You can donate to the website if you do a bit more reading and feel affected, I know we were.
We had to move hotels that day and scaled down to the budget option of Mixay Guesthouse which is a clean, central place for 100,000kip a night. Our final day we packed our bags and dropped them to the office of the bus company we were travelling with. Our problem was we couldn't pick up our passports until 1 at the earliest (Laos time this could be 1.30...indeed systems generally don't work in a linear fashion here either), so we decided to get up their early and hope to be at the top of the queue. On route we visited Pha That Luang, the pagoda itself is said to house a bone from buddha. We're not 100% about that but the surrounding building and temples were beautiful, we also saw our biggest reclining Buddha to date, I think it's pretty new.
We got to the Thai Consular around 11.30, we were first in the queue but only for about 10mins, before we knew it their must have been 60 people there. Very surprisingly it all went smoothly, we had ticket number one for when the counter opened at 1.20 btw...however, when it did it started at 3...I nearly had a nervous breakdown but instead leapt to my feet and ran to the counter before no.3 – we got our passports and our visas and made it back just in the nick of time to catch the bus. Pressure over for another while.
We arrived in Vang Vieng that evening. We checked into our hotel Inthira, which is a short walk from the bus stop. The place was fine, if a little damp. We headed out to get some food when we were accosted by an Aussie guy who insisted on showing us the town and taking us to the best bar in town. Okey dokey, off we went with him, surprise, surprise, the 'best' bar in town was an Aussie bar. It was actually fine and as it turned out he was a tour guide with GAP, and some of his tour group turned up. Then the heavens opened, as only they can in Asia and it poured and poured and poured until we realised we were on our 5th beer. We were happily being regaled with stories from the river's tubing that day. Tubing in case you haven't heard of it, is what Vang Vieng is famous for. Rather simply, you hop on an old tyre tube and float down the river, stopping at the bars along the way that haul you in via adapted ropes. Some said it was great, all said it was scary and most were drunk so that gives you a small idea of what it's like. We eventually made it home that night after a few more stops and thought, if it keeps raining like this we won't be getting on any river in the morning as it will be really swollen and fast flowing. Oh, how foolish was I?
The next day it had dried off a bit and we figured, it's wet season, we won't be able to avoid the rain or wait for the river to return to normality so we better just bite the bullet. Off we went. By the time we got to the river, a full blown tropical storm seemed to be raging, which included thunder and lighting. I actually couldn't believe the width of the river when we saw it first, about 20 metres I think maybe. First stop is a bar at the other side which you and your tube are taken to via boat. This place was hopping, there were at least 100 people there and the minute you stepped up you got a bottle of whiskey thrust in your mouth, and then another, OMG. It was good craic there though, just basically a shack with pumpin' tunes, cheap beer and buckets (buckets for those of you unfamiliar are basically made up of either vodka or whiskey with really strong red bull and god-only-knows what else and oh yea, they're in a beach bucket).
We had being hanging around with an Aussie couple who were right gung-ho and decided after our second drink we should hit the river. I was pretty nervous, Stuart was okay. It was still raining but nothing like it had when we arrived. So off we went, I lost a bracelet the minute I stepped in the water, Stu nearly lost a shoe but managed to grab it somehow. We pushed ourselves off and hung onto each other. When it seemed we were not traversing the river – the next 3 bars were on the other side – we decided to let go so we might paddle across, this didn't work. The river was moving way too fast and we seemed to be right in the current. After we passed the third bar I began to panic, the guys had thrown out the ropes but never got as far as us. I was having visions of us floating off down river never to be seen again(people die on this river every year btw). Stuart saw I was bit panicked and managed to get to me, just then as we were 'sailing' past the fourth bar a guy managed to get the rope to us – HALLELUJAH, I would live. We hauled ourselves out of the water, I was swearing I wouldn't get back in. We met up with our mates again there and proceeded to have the most pointless game of water-logged volleyball of all time, followed by a huge tug of war over a giant muddy water pit. Great fun accompanied by a nice vodka bucket. When the time came to move on I had sufficiently plucked up the courage to get back in the water – I was about to bribe a guy to take me in his boat to the next pub but the gang wouldn't let me. So we had gone about 20metres I reckon when I freaked out again and got out. I could see where the current was taking off again and because we'd have to get across it to the next bar I wasn't having any of it. I forced poor Stuart out of the water, he just wanted to make sure I was okay anyway so we walked to the next bridge and back to the bar. Not an easy task as your basically drenched walking in your bare feet on the top of a ditch which is like a mud bath while carry your huge tube. Anyway, the next bar was good fun too, where we met more randoms. At this stage we had picked up Luke and Niamh from Dublin who were first time tubers too but doing a bit better than I was. We headed off with them to the next bar, they too had decided to walk at this stage. This was the last bar we went to and you could see just about everyone was pretty drunk at this stage. I think it might have been about the 2nd last bar, apparently if you miss the last bar guys dive in after you but we weren't going to take that chance. We stayed for a few more there and met more people and eventually headed home to get a shower before the after-party. That night we had a great night out with all the folk we met that day. I think we stumbled home around 4am, only 14 hours boozing!
We were as sick as a small hospital the next day, so spent much of it lying around watching people going by with tubing injuries: cuts, bruises, lots of wrapped feet etc. We were lucky, only a few scrapes. Our friends Luke and Niamh went that day again and said the river got the better of them too, nearly losing their tubes over their heads. Yep, this is supposed to be fun. Actually, you can't deny it is fun but I imagine a lot more when the weather is nice and the river is running slowly not post torrential day-long downpours. I guess we'll have to go back in dry season to see!
We lay about in one of the bars in town that night where we watched Hot Tub Time Machine..which is really silly but good hangover viewing. I think we may have got bitten by bugs there though, so watch when you're in the bars there, they can be lethal. The bars in Vang Vieng are worthy of a mention as they basically cater for hungover people, they have bed/tables in all of them where you can lie back all day, order food and drink and mostly watch repeats of Friends. These places are cleverly know as 'Friends Bars'...some have moved on a bit and show Family Guy or American Dad but generally its Friends on repeat. There's a really decent Irish bar there called Gary's. It's actually owned by a young guy from Killorglin bizarrely. We were in there every day we were there so I gave him a present of my Irish flag as they didn't have one. I hope it's hanging with pride!
Vang Vieng is a strange place as it is abundantly clear it's major commerce are drunken tourists. A slight shame as it is a remarkably beautiful area with huge karsts surrounding the river. We didn't take our camera with us when we went tubing unfortunately as absolutely everything gets drenched; so we don't have proof of the amazing views, but here's one we took from the town.
We left Vang Vieng early the next day. We had heard about what a horrendous mountainous road it was to Luang Prabang so we booked a slightly more expensive mini-van rather than a bus. The potholes are the first issue, then comes the landslides and then comes the crash remains you have to navigate. We passed a truck that had gone over the side of the road the day before, the driver was killed. It was pretty ropey but we made it eventually. The scenery was pretty amazing at parts too when it cleared up.
Luang Prabang was very different to both Vang Vieng(not difficult) and Vientiane. We found a place to stay pretty easy which was right near the main street and night market. We had some food that night and hit the hay early after a hard day of travelling.
Our first full day in Luang Prabang we decided to get our onward travel sorted before settling in to the local sights. We booked our slow boat to Pak Beng and organised a trip to an elephant sanctuary for the next day. Following this we hiked up the 6,759 steps of Wat Phu Si...okay that's a slight exaggeration but it was a steep hill. It was pretty up there, with lots of little structures and temples as well as an amazing view of the surrounding city and countryside. They also had an underground temple, essentially a cave with an altar and a giant Buddha footprint, supposedly...see what you think.
After that we headed to the R oyal Palace Museum which happened to be across the road from where we were staying; this was quite a relief actually as I had to put on extra clothes to be 'respectful' here and the heat nearly killed me.
This place was kinda interesting, it was where the ex-King lived and was basically maintained as it was left in the late70s. There's some interesting artwork in there. The also had a funny little exhibition of his cars; mostly gifts from America, car enthusiasts would love it I think. There was also a photographic exhibition running on the grounds called 'The Floating Buddha' – this was the product of photographer Hans Georg Berger who lived near a monastery close to Luang Prabang for a few months chronicling their daily lives. Very soothing and thought provoking pictures.
That night we treated ourselves to Tum Tum Cheng Restaurant. This place was a little walk from the main street and is actually incorrectly marked in the Lonely Planet map but it is worth the excursion. The food was really fantastic and they had a live show on with music and dancing.
The following day was a great adventure for us. We headed out quite early to Elephant village, about 20km outside the city. This is a centre where elephants who have been bought from the logging industry can live and be looked after. In return they put up with tourists coming to spend time with them each day and fund their eating habits. As with any animal captivity we have to ask ourselves what's best for the animal. In this situation we ultimately felt the elephants were better off where they were. If they hadn't been bought for the sanctuary they could have either been sold for their skin or meat or indeed used for giving elephant rides in inner city attractions in between being tied to a tree for the rest of the day.
On arrival each person in our 6 people group got a chance to climb aboard an elephant a have a little trek around the park. This was a sort of familiarising thing and was easier said than done. These creatures are massive. As they were ex-logging elephants they know around 150 commands, which is incredible in itself. So when the Mahout shouts something the elephant will bend it's leg so you can try and clamber aboard. This first experience was scary and amazing.
Later we headed across the river to where more of the elephants hang out. From there we got an ride on a tower(the seat that goes on their back). Again I felt a bit uneasy about this but the mahout told me I could go down on her neck and I was much happier there. It was spectacular getting so up close to these colossal animals.
Following this we had a break and got to go and swim in an amazing pool that overlooked the river and the elephants as they ate.
Afterwards if was back across the river again for bath time when we each got aboard an elephant to take them into the river to give them a good scrub. This was great fun too, they encourage you to try and stand up on your elephant but I wasn't too keen on that it was much more fun just scrubbing them and splashing about.
Once our time with the elephants was done we took a long boat done the river to Tad Sae waterfall. I was expecting a Kodak moment and to head off again but low and behold it was as if we arrived at the Laos equivalent of a water slide park. There were loads of people there as it was a local holiday. This place was sort of weirdly unnatural for a natural setting, I don't know this for sure but I think they must have redirected the waterfall as it is huge and the trees and stones within parts of it don't look like they should be there. Anyway, it was pretty good fun, there was tubing and zip lines, none of which we bothered with as they both looked slightly suicidal. We did take a dip though and it was FREEZING, not an experience we have very often these days.
All in all a great day. We are pleased to say also that we felt the elephants were well looked after, there are 11 there I believe and 2 or 3 don't work at all as they are a bit older and cranky. You are always aware that they are a dangerous animal when you are with them, their shear size won't let you forget. We learned some amazing things about them that day too, particularly and astonishingly that they cry like we do, that is, if they feel lonely, stressed or isolated they cry. I couldn't believe that. I'm also pleased to say the Mahouts that worked with us didn't use 'the hook' which is basically a hook on the end of a pole that gets shoved in the animals face/eye if they aren't cooperating.
We were pooped after our day so we didn't get up to much that night and it was all aboard the slow-boat express the next morning. We didn't know quite what to expect from the boat as there are quite a few horror stories online but we were pleasantly surprised to find a covered long boat with tables and chairs not unsimilar to a train. We whiled away the day listening to our ipods, taking in the scenery and reading.
We reached Pak Beng, our overnight stop around 5.30pm. There's not much to Pak Beng. We checked into a guesthouse, had some food overlooking the river and went for a couple of beers. We did get offered opium once by a barman that looked off his game completely and also again on the street walking home. I reckon this must be a hot-bed for trafficking it as the river connects with Thailand...where we were headed.
The next morning we were pleased again to find a similar boat and pretty much enjoyed the day as we had the day before. Tips for other travellers include- bring food, a charged ipod and lots of books. The boats that were going in the opposite direction were busier and more boozy. We reached Huay Xai about 5.30 and checked into a pretty basic hotel which cost something silly like £6 for both of us. We tried to book our onward travel for the morning but alas the only minibus that leaves for Chiang Mai was booked up – seemed a bit silly they didn't have more than one.
Anyway, we had to hang around that day until 3.00 when we went through Laos Immigration, hopped on a little speed boat across the river, strolled through Thai immigration and grabbed our mini-van to Chiang Mai.
Our driver seemed like a bit of a lunatic at first but funnily enough when the weather got bad he calmed right down and drove very sensibly thankfully. We made it to Chiang Mai that night, thankful to be safe and sound at our last country and looking forward to the spoils of Thailand for our last few weeks.
Aroon Residence, 8/10 – it's a bit out of town, breakfasts are hearty though.
Full Moon Cafe, 7/10 – standard.
Japanese Restaurant near Mixay Guesthouse, 8/10 sorry dunno the name, tasty.
Mixay Guesthouse, 8/10 – good cheap accomodation.
Swedish Bakery, 9/10 – fab coffee and huge rolls.
Le Provencal, 8/10 – nice but for the rat.
Cope, 10/10 – absolutely a must, very educational and eye-opening.
Wat Si Saket – 7/10 - worth a shuffty.
National History Museum – 7/10 – it will kill an hour and kinda educaional.
Pha That Luang – 8/10 – nice reclining Buddha.
Intherin Hotel, 7/10 – very damp.
Aussie Bar, 7/10 – standard.
Gary's Bar - 10/10 - the closest to an actual Irish bar we've seen on our travels.
Q Bar - 8/10 - where the party's at but closes at around 11.30 bizarrely.
Phousi I Guesthouse, 7/10 – small rooms but great location near night market and pier.
Swedish Bakery, 7/10 – nowhere near as good as it's Vientiane sister.
Tum Tum Cheng Restaurant, 10/10 – awesome if a little more expensive, does cookery courses too.
Elephant Village, 9/10 – a fantastic day but some waiting around.
Wat Pho Si, 8/10 – worth the hike up the road for the view and Buddha footprint.
Royal Palace Museum, 7/10 – the Floating Buddha is a nice exhibition.
Monsovanh Guesthouse, 7/10 – a bit damp but only 40m from the pier.
Gateway Villa Hotel, 7/10 – like a cross between a hotel in the 1880s and now.
Riverside Restaurant, 8/10 – tasty food.