Sabaidi Phakhenu LaosJuly 17, 2018 in Laos ⋅ ⛅ 84 °F
As night buses go, the one from Pakse to Vientiane was pretty nice. It was a double decker with double beds running along each side of the bus. Luckily (probably because I was a solo foreign female traveller) I got a double bed to myself, whereas normally you may be sharing with a stranger. And because it was an actually flat bed I managed to sleep the whole journey.
I arrived in Laos’ capital at 7am and made my way straight to my hostel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check in so had to just hang about in the common area while I decided what to do for the day. Vientiane is sadly one of the worst capital cities I have been to. The only “tourist” thing to do is visit a land mine museum or go to a bhudda Park outside the city. Neither of which greatly appealed to me. I decided instead to have a lazy morning in a nearby cafe and then spend the afternoon in a local herbal spa. The spa I found was actually one of the top 10 things to do in the city from TripAdvisor and I was not disappointed! It was located down a side street and was very much a place where mainly locals went. I decided to do the herbal sauna and then have a traditional Laos massage. I changed into the required tunic-towel-dress and started my cleanse. This involved going into the sauna for as long as possible, then washing myself with a bucket of cold water, then scrubbing myself with a mixture of coffee and yoghurt and then repeating as many times as I could in the hour before my massage. I managed to do six repetitions in total. Did I mention that I was the only tourist in the spa? The four local girls there must have thought I was very week every time I admitted defeat in the sauna - the longest I lasted was about 60 seconds (it was seriously hot in there!). After being thoroughly exfoliated, bathed and void of sweat I changed into the strange pyjamas provided and headed upstairs for my Laos massage. If any if you have had a Thai massage it is similar to that. If not let me enlighten you. The only way I can describe the Laos massage is something between a massage, a visit to the chiropractor and someone doing yoga on your back. At one point the girl was kneeling on the back of my legs cracking my back. And as with the Thai massage it finishes with the masseuse getting you to sit up, as she sits behind you with your arms and head in a head lock she twists you from side to side. As weird and different as it was to my relaxing massage in the Philippines I did leave feeling thoroughly rejuvenated. With extremely soft skin. After the spa I had dinner in a nearby Lebanese restaurant before heading back to the hostel.
I decided to get the morning bus up to Vang Vieng, the backpacker hub of Laos. After five hours we reached the small town between the mountains. I checked myself into my chosen hostel and headed out to explore. The town is infamous for tubing, a backpacker activity involving floating in rubber rings down a river stopping at bars along the way to get exceedingly drunk. As I’m not much of a drinker (or in the desired 18-22 age bracket which makes up the hulk of said tubers) I wasn’t too eager to book this activity. After talking to a cool Norwegian girl working at one of the tour offices I decided to opt for the more sober kayaking and lagoon trip and booked that for the next day. I then headed back to the hostel for a power nap ahead of tonight’s England v France World Cup match. Sadly no need to relieve that. Although during the match, which was only being shown in one bar in the town I met Chloe and Jack again. The odds were pretty good as it seemed like every backpacker was there that night. After the match, which we watched til the bitter end, I headed back to the hostel to try to sleep before my early morning kayaking.
I was picked up at 9am and taken to the first of three stops on the tour, a small river going into a cave that you tube into. This is much more tame than the tubing on the main river and involves sitting in a rubber ring and pulling yourself along a rope as you go into and through the cave. Although once inside the cave it’s pretty dark so me and my fellow tour goers were all wearing head torches, trying to avoid other groups going in the opposite direction on their way back. Quite a fun way to spend the morning, especially laughing at each other trying to get in and out of the tubes. After our cave tour we had lunch and got to know each other better. It just so happens that there were two other pharmacist sabaticalers on the tour, the first I have met on my trip, both from Ireland. Much to the annoyance of their two non pharmacist friends we spent most of lunch venting about pharmacy. It’s good to know that the problems are the same no matter what country you work in. After lunch we followed our guide on a short walk to one of the seemingly numerous “blue lagoons” in the area and spent the next hour relaxing in the water (occasionally trying, and failing, to zip line off the podium into the water). After a very relaxing morning it was time for the main event - kayaking. We headed back to the river and paired into our kayaks. There was 11 of us with two guides which made up the front and back of the group, making sure none of us got lost. Before we started our guides said that we would be kayaking about 20km down the river, and then joked saying “Europeans you can swim so we do 20km, Chinese and Korean can’t so they only do 8km”. Not entirely sure if we were thrilled about the extra distance. 20km is pretty far. We started down river, following our guide as we avoided occasional rocks and trees. The first few kilometres went really well, we were all keeping together and enjoying going over the occasional rapids. Then it started raining. Then it started really raining. The heavens just opened. Let me tell you, it is neither fun nor easy to kayak in the rain. At one point it was raining so much I could hardly see. We managed to soldier through and make it to our rest stop, one of the infamous tubing bars. We were glad of a break and to get dry for a minute. Although the rain did ease it didn’t completely stop and we had to continue the rest of our journey wet and all a bit less enthusiastic than when we started. Nevertheless we all made it safely to the finish line, and I for one felt a sense of achievement. Mostly though I just wanted a shower. Back at the hostel, clean and dry, I had dinner in the common area with two new arrivals, Steph and Mel from Birmingham. They were planning to go tubing tomorrow and asked if i wanted to join them. Why not? I’ve conquered the river now. (Also they said they weren’t planning on drinking a lot). So with tomorrow’s plan sorted I headed to bed.
Tubing is an afternoon activity so after a much needed lie in and a very late breakfast I met Steph and Mel in the common area at 12. We headed to the tubing shop where we met up with Hannah and Jack, a couple from Birmingham that the girls met while travelling. We hired our tubes and bundled into the van that would take us to the river. At the river we got the makeshift raft-ferry across to the first bar as were greeted by some hungover looking bar staff (fellow backpackers who love the laidback Laos life so much they have decided to stay here and work in these bars while really just getting drunk for free surrounded by other Europeans backpackers). We were one of the first groups there and set up camp at one of the tables with a few drinks (think the girl died of shock when I asked for a sprite). As we waited for the main throng of people to arrive we shared stories of our traces. Steph and Mel have been travelling for 10 months, starting by working in New Zealand for a few months, and are now on the home stretch of their trip. And Hannah and jack are in the middle of a six month trip. They met while doing the slow boat journey between Thailand and Laos (something il be doing in reverse), and weirdly they’re from the same part of Birmingham. After a while the main group from Nana’s (the towns party hostel) arrived and it was time for the hungover staff to rally the troops. Cue drinking games and awful trance music. Plus the three male barmen, who I’ve decided were in a cult due to their matching tie die wife beaters and leggings (seriously guys wearing leggings is just not ok), would brake out in a chant followed by a shotgun (where you pierce the bottom of a beer can and open the top while drinking out of the pierced hole - Australia’s version of our “strawpeedo”). One good thing about being sober is watching other people get drunk. It’s fascinating. Anyway after about two hours at the first bar the group left on mass and headed down river in their tubes. Luckily we noticed that one tube at the bottom of the pile was deflated before it was too late as quickly ran to get one and join the group. After the initial trepidation of getting on said tube it was quite a relaxing experience just floating down the river (much more so than kayaking down it). After about ten minutes we spotted the second bar on the other side and tried to do a weird backwards butterfly stroke over the tubes to get ourselves over. Luckily two local guys were on hand with bottles tied to rope which they threw out and reeled us all in. The Nana’s mass were already there in full party mode. We chilled on one of the table seats and had our own mini party. That was until the heavens decided to open and rained everyone into the small covered area. As it didn’t look like it was going to let up anytime soon the Nana’s mass soon continued their party in the rain (that’s the beer blanket for you). We stayed under the cover and had some drinks and snacks. As well as rain we had full on thunder and lightning. And as we were all from the uk we did the standard “lightning, one, two, three, thunder... it’s getting further away/closer” skit until the storm stopped. After about an hour the rain died down enough for us to continue our journey down river. Back in the tubes, more confident than the first time as we now knew that there would be someone to reel us in at the end, we relaxed into the journey. Me as Hannah (the two most nervous about floating off) hooked ourselves to each other and had a very nice time just floating along together chatting. After about 45 minutes we reached the third and final bar and were once again reeled in. We had a celebratory drink and watched as the rest of the mass trickled in and danced around the fire. Even though we were one of the first ones to start the tubing, we ended up being one of the last groups to leave as we spent most of the time talking. This ended on our favour as the tube rental guys came to pick up our tubes so we didn’t have to carry them back like everyone else. After a long day we all headed back to town for a shower and some food. All in all a good day.
(Ps - I feel that I should actually mention why tubing here is now so infamous. Before 2011 there used to be 25 bars along the river and people used to get drunker and drunker as they went down the river. Unfortunately due to this chaos a number of people died, mainly Australians, until finally the Australian government put pressure on the Laos government to put restrictions in place, hence there now only being three bars open a day and they alternate so that all the former bars continue to get business. So yeah, not the greatest history...)
I got the 11am bus to Luang Prabang and was joined by my welsh friends Chloe and Jack. The bus ride was probably one of the most nerve racking onesie taken. The road is so windy that only minivans are allowed to transport people. At one point the road was just a dirt building site that the driver had to navigate so that he didn’t get stuck. At see points I honestly just closed my eyes it was that bad. The scariest money came though just after we stopped for a toilet break. We were only half an hour from Luang Prabang so no one got out. But just a minute after we continued on we came across a lorry that had just overturned across the road. The driver was still inside and was kicking the windshield so he could get out. After a few kicks he got out and we saw he didn’t have a scratch on him. Unfortunately his cargo, bags or rice I think, were all over the road. A few minivans stopped but as he was ok and there wasn’t anything they could do we managed to squeeze past the lorry and continue our journey. How lucky that we stopped for that toilet break! We soon reached the town and walked to our respective hostels agreeing to meet up later. After a quick pit stop at my hostel I headed out in search for food and then to meet up with Chloe and Jack to watch the final England match. We found a sports bar near my hostel and watched the game, sadly not as exciting as the semifinal. After the game we headed back to our hostels for much needed sleep.
I had a lazy morning reading, before meeting Chloe and Jack for the day. We booked a minivan to go to the Kuang Si Falls for 11am. Unfortunately due to a miscommunication the guy didn’t turn up so we rebooked for 1pm. In the meantime we went for a walk to the nearby Buddhist temple and cave in the centre of the town. Unfortunately the temple you had to pay for which we didn’t think was worth it so we just saw the very small cave and then found somewhere for lunch. Finally after the brief delay we met our minivan driver and headed to the waterfalls. The falls are probably the most visited site in the area and are also home to a bear “sanctuary”. Not much of a fan of these so called sanctuaries we headed straight for the waterfalls. The waterfalls are split over three levels with the walking trail starting near the bottom. We decided to head straight for the top tier which involves climbing a strap path up the side, at one point climbing some stairs with water cascading down them (pretty cool). The top of the waterfall was made up of small pools connected by bamboo walkways and felt very tranquil compared to the pools below. We crossed the pools and headed down the other side and across the bridge at the bottom to get the main view of 60m drop. As far as waterfalls go this is the beat one I’ve seen so far. We then headed back along the path and picked one of the quieter pools for a swim. Well that was the intention. I tried to get in but only managed up to my knees. It was very cold and also full of those little nibbly fish which you see in those foot spas, which by the way actually sting a bit when they bit you. So no I didn’t see the appeal after that. We just sat on one of the picnic benches instead chatting until it was time to head back. Back in town we found a cool bamboo bar for dinner and were going to stay there to watch the World Cup final but the whole place seemed to be reserved for one of the bus tour groups (18-30s group). We headed back to our trusted sports bar instead and watched the game surrounded by a mix of nationalities. After the match it was time to say goodbye to my travel companions as we were heading in opposite directions, me to Thailand and them to Vietnam. It was definitely a nice change to solo life being able to meet up with them in a few different places.
I had an early start the next morning as I was picked up at 7:30 to get the slow boat to Thailand. Unfortunately due to monsoon type rain the night before and into the morning the staff didn’t show up at 7am for breakfast so I had to start my day with only the granola bar I had in my backpack. The truck dropped me and my fellow tourists (4 Brits, 3 Germans, 1 American and 1 South African) at the river and we all bundled on the slow boat. The boat itself was a cross between a narrow boat and a very old neglected plane. We set up camp in the various distressed airline-style seats and got comfortable for the long and, you guessed it, slow journey ahead. As the seats were all facing the same way it wasn’t exactly conducive to socialising. Plus it was still fairly bleak outside so most of us just slept for the duration of the journey. Pretty boring I know. The journey to the Thai border actually takes two days (well it does if you take the slow boat) so after about 8 hours we stopped for the night at a small village halfway up the river, mainly full of guest houses specifically for this reason. Me, the South African, on of the german girls and two of the other Brits decided to get a homestay together to cut costs. I was the first in the queue off the boat and a guy came up to me saying he had a room for 50baht each. Then as I was trying to navigate the plank off the boat a lady helped each off and said she had a room for 20baht each for the five of us. Sold to the lowest bidder! For that price we got transport too and from her guest house and she had also had a restaurant for dinner and breakfast and would even make a packed lunch for the next day. We were all pretty tired when we got there so just had dinner and went straight to bed.
The next morning we were up at 7am for breakfast and then back on the boat by 8. We had a different boat today and it had a much better layout, with tables down each side with double seats on facing eagle other so we could be more social. We spent most of the journey talking and playing cards, much more enjoyable. After about 9 hours we finally reached the border town of Houay Xai. Even though it was getting late in the day my group decided we’d rather cross the border and spend the night in Chiang Khong on the Thai side than stay in Laos and cross the next morning. Plus I didn’t have enough money left for another night in Laos. We got a tuk tuk to the border and got stamped out of Laos. Not before paying the extra dollar for it being a weekend, according to the sign the border control guy placed in front of him. It wasn’t until I paid and went through that I realised that it was Tuesday! The double with travelling, you lose all concept of days of the week. We then had to pay for the official bus to take us across the Friendship bridge to the Thai side of the border, and as we arrived after hours at 18:02 (two minutes!) we had to pay an additional 3,000 kip, about 30p. Oh Laos, how I love your borders! The Thai border was much better, completely free and easy. After finally making it into Thailand we bundled into yet another tuk tuk and headed to the border town of Chiang Khong and found a surprisingly nice hostel for the night. All exhausted we had a quick dinner and headed to bed.
So there you have my week in north Laos. Next stop north Thailand!
La kone!Read more