Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Southeast Asia Trip: Laos


Beautifully green would be a good adjective to describe Laos. Magically rustic would be another. Perhaps even desperately hot could be a good description of this country, too. No matter which adjective I use, Laos has interesting as well as unique qualities to offer. Our first and favorite city was Luang Prabang. We arrived here by slow boat, which turned out to be an exhausting two-day ride. Was the experience worth it? Yes, it was. No landscapes escaped my camera during the ride. First, we spent the night at the Thailand-Laos border, and the next day we took a slow boat from there. Here's our detailed version: 

Thailand-Laos Border 
I'm not sure if you remember, but in my previous post, I said it's important to make sure to double check the information when you book a tour somewhere. Here's the reason why: if you're staying in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, you can buy tickets to cross into Laos by land. While staying in Chiang Mai, we bought our tickets from our hostel and left for the Thailand-Laos border early in the morning the next day. We asked whether accommodation was included or not, and even though we were assured it wasn't, when we arrived at the border - Chiang Khong, to be more precise -, we learned that accommodation for that night was indeed included. I had already booked a hostel, so I had to cancel our reservation at the last minute. They didn't charge my credit card, but that was just pure luck, I suppose. So ask every question twice and double check the information with whoever you're booking your tour. Or embrace the unexpected! ;)

The Welcome to Laos sign at the Thailand-Laos border
Moreover, the visa to enter Laos is upon arrival and it costs USD 30 for Chilean citizens. However, if you cross the border over a weekend, there's an overtime fee, so you will have to pay one more dollar. You can bring your own dollars or exchange Lao Kip for dollars at the border. Whichever you decide to do is up to you. We recommend calculating how many dollars you will need for visas and bring them from home. It can be more convenient, but nowadays the dollar is so expensive that it doesn't really matter. For Weg, the visa fee was different. She had to pay USD 35 plus one more dollar (overtime fee) to enter Laos. Here is a website to check whether or not you need a visa to enter a Southeast Asian country according to your nationality.

Pak Beng 

After spending the night at the border, we were taken to a pier in Houeixai and got on a slow boat to Pak Beng, a small community along the Mekong river where we spent another night before arriving in Luang Prabang. Our experience in Pak Beng was interesting, to say the least. We arrived just in time for dinner, which was perfect after an almost seven-hour boat ride. Hungry and thirsty, we ordered food and drinks. The power, however, went out a few times, leaving the whole community in the dark for an hour or so. We remained without air conditioning all night. Not fun! 

Slow boats by the pier in Houexai
But not everything was that crazy. We also met nice people from Chile, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Germany. We went to a bar - most certainly the only one in town - and had a nice time. I have a feeling I will treasure all the moments we spent in this remote place for years to come. 

Luang Prabang

From Bak Peng to Luang Prabang, the slow boat took about six hours. Once again, the ride was incredibly long, yet beautiful. We hadn't booked a hostel, so we took a Tuk Tuk to the city center and ended up staying at Som Khounmeung guesthouse, which we also recommend. The staff were very friendly, the rooms were spacious and clean, and there was free coffee and bananas at the front desk. It was also within walking distance from the main night market and other tourist attractions. We paid about 60,000 LAK per person per night. 

Night Market in Luang Prabang
While staying in Luang Prabang, we also went to Kuang Si Falls, which was, by far, my favorite part of the city. In order to get there, you need to take a Tuk Tuk. Once again, don't forget to negotiate a price. We went with two more people, a friend from Argentina and a friend from France, so it was a cheap ride. The entrance fee was 20,000 LAK per person.

Huang Si Falls in Luang Prabang. There's also a trail through the jungle.
Group photo at Kuang Si Falls. You can see the falls in the background.
On our way back to the hostel from Kuang Si Falls, we stopped by a butterfly park owned by a very nice Dutch woman and her husband. They came to Laos years ago and decided to stay because they fell in love with the country. Once they were given permission to buy a property in Laos, they opened a butterfly park. If you have a chance to go, don't think twice! It's beautiful and there's also a free natural fish spa inside the park. If you want to know more about it, you can follow their page on Facebook

Unlike other countries, the traffic in Laos is not as crazy as in Vietnam, for example, and they also drive on the right side of the road, so we rented bicycles and biked around the city and along the Mekong river. Renting a bicycle for 24 hours in Luang Prabang costs about 25,000-30,000 LAK.

Biking around Luang Prabang. You can see my bike buddies in the background.

Vang Vieng 

Did we like Vang Vieng? I'll let you be the judge. For some strange reason, when we arrived in Vang Vieng, our reservation hadn't been made. Therefore, we were sent to another hostel with a swimming pool for the same price. Breakfast was included. Not bad, right? The next day we rented motorbikes - because the traffic is OK in Laos - and drove to Tham Phu Kham cave and the Blue Lagoon with our German friends, whom we had met the day before in the van from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. I won't lie to you. We did encounter some incidents while driving our motorbikes, but nothing too serious happened. Just a few scratches here and there. 

Inside Tham Phu Kham cave. It was like being on another planet.
Tham Phu Kham cave in the distance
Our German friends and us on our motorbikes in Vang Vieng
The Blue Lagoon in Vang Vieng. It was crowded, but beautiful.
The entrance free for Tham Phu Kham cave as well as for the Blue Lagoon was 10,000 LAK each per person.

In Vang Vieng, we also decided to take a day off in order to relax. We were all a little drained of energy at this point, so we did nothing but rest for 24 hours. We were also facing some minor health problems. The next day, however, we went zip lining and cave tubing. It was great.

Zip line circuit through the jungle and over the river
Getting ready to go cave tubing


We stayed in Vientiane only for one day. We didn't do much here because it was extremely hot (41 degrees temperature), so we just walked around the city and did some sightseeing. One of the main attractions is the Buddha Park, which we decided not to visit after all. It sounds boring, I know, but had you been there, you too would have probably decided to stay in your air-conditioned room. To be honest, it was a nice, energy-recovering break. 

  • Laos uses the Lao Kip (LAK) as its currency. The largest banknote is 100,000 LAK (approximately USD 13). 
  • No coins are currently in use in Laos. Only banknotes. 
  • An average hostel room per night in Laos should cost about 60,000-70,000 LAK per person. 
  • Make sure to bring a passport size photo to get your visa at the border (or airport). 
  • Laos is a good place to rent a motorbike if you're a newbie, especially in Vang Vieng. 
  • Food was very good. Try the Lao steamed sticky rice. It's the best in Southeast Asia. 
  • If you plan on visiting any caves, bring a flashlight. 
  • When going to the Blue Lagoon, make sure to download a GPS application that works without internet access. There's a fake Blue Lagoon sign that appears sooner on the road. Just pass it until you reach the next sign. In any case, the Blue Lagoon is located approximately 8 kilometers from downtown Vang Vieng. 
  • When driving around on your motorbike, be careful with animals. They walk freely, especially cows. 
  • There is an early morning ceremony in which monks wake up at dawn to collect offerings from the faithful. It's called the Almsgiving ceremony and it takes place in Luang Prabang. If you want to attend the ceremony, you have to wake up at 5 in the morning. 
Once again, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to drop me a line. And if you liked what you read, please spread the word! The next post will be about Vietnam.

Stay tuned!


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