After Myanmar, I flew back to good old Bangkok where I stocked up on essentials, did some laundry and planned my next move. Once I was rested and ready, I booked myself onto the night train to Nong Khai, where I would take a short shuttle train ride over the border and into Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
The night train was a great experience – I had a female only carriage which was clean and quiet. I slept well, waking slightly before we arrived the next morning. The border crossing was also painless – I paid my $30, filled out the form, got my visa, and boarded a shuttle bus into town.
Over the next 10 days I visited Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Here’s a little bit of what I got up to in each place:
Often overlooked by travellers in favour of the serene Luang Prabang or raucous Vang Vieng, Vientiane is actually a lovely city for a couple of days. Asia’s smallest capital city, Vientiane feels very European with its colonial architecture, numerous bakeries and cafes, and French street names. It even boasts its own ‘Victory Gate’, the impressive Patuxai Arch, which resembles France’s L’Arc de Triomphe. However, far from being a tribute, the arch was actually built to mark the country’s independence from France, and up close the design has many Buddhist and traditional Laotian Features.
When I arrived at my hostel, Hive Hostel – comfortable rooms, really clean but with frustratingly poor wifi – I was too early to check in. Despite feeling a bit templed out after Myanmar, I saw that I was quite near the Sisaket temple, which was at the end of the road leading to the Patuxai Arch, so I decided to check it out.
While walking around the beautiful temple and admiring its collection of Buddha statues, I saw two young monks nearby, also looking at the statues. They spotted me and said hello and asked where I was from.
They asked if they could walk around with me for a while and practice their English, so we strolled around the temple and I asked them questions about the statues and they explained what they could. It was pretty cool, after all it’s not every day you get to explore an ancient Buddhist temple with a couple of monks! One of them spoke very good English already and said he wanted to practice so he could eventually become an English teacher and potentially move out of the temple and travel. We spent an hour or so wandering around and when I was heading off they took my email address, though I’m still waiting on my first email…
Once I’d done a bit more sightseeing I checked into my hostel, and met the other girls staying in my dorm room. We all agreed it was about time for a cold beer, and headed out in search of a good spot for a sundowner or two. Built along the Mekong River, Vientiane has a buzzing night market and several bars and restaurants along the riverfront. We visited a few nice little places and sampled the national beer, Beer Lao, while watching the sunset.
While I was in Vientiane I also tracked down a yoga studio and went to a class run by a lovely Californian lady. I’d been finding it hard to maintain a consistent practice while travelling, so I took the opportunity to take a class and push myself a bit. I’m so glad I did as we did some lovely backbend and arm balance work and I felt great afterwards.
My next stop in Laos was Vang Vieng, which is famous for tubing – an activity where backpackers rent big rubber rings and float down the river while getting pulled into bars along the way. After a number of mishaps and accidents a few years ago, the authorities realised it was getting out of hand and clamped down on tubing. You can still do it these days, but there are only two bars to stop at. Given the amount of beer we drank that day, I’d say two was plenty.
I had some lovely Aussie, Northern Irish and English folks in my group, and we had a great day of floating along, drinking in the sun, dancing and even limbo under a flaming pole…We continued the evening’s festivities in Gary’s Irish Bar, a Vang Vieng institution owned by Gary, a friendly Kerry man who has run the place for about 9 years.
Vang Vieng isn’t just about tubing though. One day I joined forces with a French guy I met on the bus and we rented mountain bikes and headed across the river to explore some of the beautiful countryside nearby, and visit the Blue Lagoon.
If you’re visiting the area and fancy a break from the party, I would definitely recommed this. The lagoon is a great place to cool off and have a swim, and there is also a cave nearby if you fancy a bit of a climb and some exploring. Bring a torch though, this isn’t the Ailwee caves and you’ll need the light as you go deeper.
Other than that, I discovered that Vang Vieng is best appreciated by sipping beers at one of the many riverside bars while watching the sun set and the world go by.
I stayed in Rock Backpackers which was cheap and cheerful, friendly but not too party, in a good location, and included a solid free breakfast.
The perfect antidote to the buzzing backpacker town of Vang Vieng is picturesque Luang Prabang. The old town is a Unesco Heritage site, and has one of the best night markets I’ve visited in Asia, full of colourful handcrafted souvenirs. It was all I could do not to blow the budget there, and add to my backpack weight, but I did pick up a couple of bits and pieces…
The main street in the town is lined with beautiful cafes and restaurants, and I happily spent a lot of time there people watching while enjoying the good food, cocktails and coffee.
My favourite bit of Luang Prabang was a day trip to Kuang Si waterfall, a stunning collection of pools and falls, leading to one really high waterfall. I joined forces with Belinda, one of the lovely people I hung out with in LP, and we shared a tuk tuk to the falls with three others, keeping it pretty cheap at 40,000 kip (€4.50) for a return journey. It’s a good deal for a 30 minute drive there and back, and the driver waits three hours while you explore the waterfalls.
We climbed up the trail at the side of the main waterfall to see the views from the top, and of course have a go on the rope swing up there! It’s a steep climb and I soon wished I had worn runners instead of flip flops. Half way up I abandoned the shoes and just went barefoot. The trek was worth it for the stunning views from the top.
The climb back down the other side was pretty steep. Between the heat and the effort it took not to go sliding down the hill, once we were down we were very glad to be able to cool off and swim in the beautiful blue pools below. If you’re in the area it’s a must visit!
The other spot I loved in Luang Prabang was Utopia, a bar and restaurant overlooking the river which is a great spot to laze about in the sun. I spent time alone there, sunbathing and reading my book, and had a good time there having food and drinks with other travellers. The food and fruit shakes are pretty delicious and they even have a volleyball court and run yoga classes, if you’re feeling more active!
One unique experience that I really enjoyed while in Luang Prabang was getting up early to see the traditional Buddhist Alms Giving ceremony, where people line the streets before dawn to give donations of food to the monks from the local temple as they pass by in a procession. It’s an incredible thing to witness and definitely worth getting up early to see.
I capped off my visit to Luang Prabang by hiking up Mt Phousi, a view point in the middle of the town with great views from the top, which I was glad of after a tiring walk up. The hill is home to numerous Buddha statues and a golden temple on the summit. I tackled it in the late afternoon, when the heat wasn’t quite as intense and the view from the top was absolutely beautiful in the sunlight.
I stayed in Vongprachan Backpackers – a bargain with clean rooms, free towels, decent breakfast, roof area and speedy wifi.