We were quite skeptical about going to Laos the days before we arrived there. Not because it is one of the last countries ruled by a Leninist Marxist communist regime, but because since our trip into Hmong land during the Mae Hong Son loop in Thailand, we had searched about their history and the present of Hmong peoples and learned that nowadays (in 2019) the Laotian army forces (in coalition with the Vietnamese) bomb, hunt, kill and try to eradicate the last members of a small Hmong community who lives in the jungle for the last 30 years. As a result of the help provided by this ethnic group to the USA during the Vietnam war but also to France during the decolonization of Indochina after the Second World War, even three generations later, they are still considered as traitors. . ( a good article to read about this story by clicking here / and all articles concerning the Hmong of Laos and elsewhere by clicking here ... in English only)
It was too late to change our plans, but we thought about it...
So why "Sabaidee Laos" is the title of this blog post ? Because everyone, but literally everyone, will tell you that when you are in Laos! But what does it mean? Just "hello"! You will tell me nothing exceptional, but being tourists coming from previous visits in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, we were really surprised by the frequency with which we heard it and the smiles that go with it! The pronunciations vary according to the north or the south of the country. It's nice, especially when it's one of the only words in the local language you know.
We arrive in Laos (or Lao PDR) from Chiang Rai via the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai border post using the Friendship Bridge. The border crossing itself is very simple since we had a bus from Chiang Rai straight to Luang Prabang. The ride in sleeping bus is uncomfortable. The originally planned duration of 14h will quickly turn into 19h, due to numerous breakdowns / repairs probably due to the quality of the roads but also the aggressive driving of the drivers taking shifts all night. But it wasn't our most unpleasant bus ride in Laos, because we meet other French people with whom we will spend couple of days together going south.
Arriving at 6h in the morning, a breakfast was highly welcome! Then we drop our bags at the guesthouse and begin our exploration of the city. Luang Prabang is located on the banks of the Mekong River and is the ancient capital of Laos. The city is rather charming with many colonial style buildings and lots of greenery.
There are also many temples that are worth seeing.
The next morning we tried to wake up very early, around 5 am in the morning to attend the Tak Bat. It is a ceremony where the monks come out of the temples and go to the streets to receive the offerings of the believers. Unfortunately we were not brave enough to get up, the night bus was still in our minds!
Once awake at a more reasonable time, we decide to rent a scooter to explore the surroundings, always with our French friends met on the bus. We visited a small village famous for its homemade Saa paper, made from mulberry bark. Then we go to another village famous for the production of Lao-Lao. It is a rice alcohol rather strong and not necessarily very good. For folklore, you will find in the small bottles sold in the village scorpions or snakes inside. Scorpion for back pain and snake for strength. Yeah ... hangover guaranteed!
We then go to the Tad Sae Waterfalls located about XNUMX km from Luang Prabang! The road to get there is quite bumpy, muddy, then you have to take a boat to cross the Nam Khan River to reach the place. There were not many people when we went there and the walk in the lush forest was nice. There is also possibility to swim but the water was really cool for us! After a good shower, it's time to go out for dinner. The day before we had spotted a lot of French and Italians restaurants and after several months in Southeast Asia we had a desire to get a ... RACLETTE! Impossible do you think? Not at all! We find a small restaurant that offers a good traditional raclette with French or Laotian cheese, cold cuts, potatoes and ... pickles! Few glasses of red wine to pair with this and we slept like kings !
The next day, still by scooter we visited the waterfalls of Kuang Si. They are very known and of course full of people! There is also the possibility of swiming but we prefered to hike around the waterfalls and get away a bit from the crowd!
At the end of the day, one goal: sunset over the Mekong! But be aware there are number of bars offering good sunset view! We found after couple of tries a perfect spot on a small beach in the suburbs of Luang Prabang! Really nice!
It was a short stop of 2 nights, but we could have spent more time there. We were suddenly very tired of the bus ride which brought us here, about 11h ride for an initial planned of 4h (183km, # 11km / h average), with again number of repairs en route. We were still with our french friends and we were full of good ideas, and wanted to rent a buggy or a scooter to go see the "blue lagoons" but the high price of the buggy rental and the recommendations of the locals to not do it with a scooter have discouraged us. We still did some river tubing in the Nam Song River for 5 $ only, and it was really cool and relaxing. It is also here that our road and the one of our friends have splitted.
We only stayed one night and did not visit anything special, we just wandered in the very quiet streets of the capital. This city seemed very nice, but we wanted to move south as soon as possible and to find the countryside again. The next day we leave for Thakhek by a very nice VIP bus. Well in "VIP" it has only the name! Another horrible trip, but this time without failure or repairs (336km in 10h, # 33km / h average).
In Thakhek we arrived late, and the guest houses were almost all full. So we ended up at the hotel Inthira, which is good, but for 30 $ we were expecting 3 star service ! In short, we were happy to leave the next morning to bike the loop on a scooter! Smaller than that of Mae Hong Son in Thailand, it is still more than 400km. We have a very nice scooter, a Yamaha Qbix! It's big, bigger than most scooters rental !
Nice looking scooter yes, but visible! 100m after leaving, and at the only traffic light of the village, POLICE. The officer was saying that I was on the wrong lane to go straight, i was suppose to turn right! Well, in one way or another the policeman would have taken some money. This time it will be 50000 LAK, ie 5 EUR. It was a corrupt cop, especially when it came the time to give the money on road side, "please please hide this, don't show the money" ahaha ! 5 EUR this remains a fine that the majority of Laotians could not pay.
Problems continues with our amazing Yamaha Qbix! After 50km and in the middle of nowhere, the scooter stops suddenly. We walk pushing the scooter for 200-300m to find a restaurant or a shop. And here it's quite complicated to communicate with the owner of the restaurant, and the village is 5-6km away. Well she understands our problem and makes sure that the only mechanical guy of the village comes to take a look as the scooter. A change of battery later that turns out to be useless, we succeed to contact the scooter rental office. Rather effective, they sends us a new scooter really fast, 2h after! It's almost 16h and we have our new scooter, older, more miles, less space for our 2 big asses, but it works! This is unfortunately not the end of our problems! Stopping 20km further to take a picture, we realize that there is a big oil leak on the crankcase! We call back the owner of the scooter, which after some explanations, told us : "no problem, you can drive to your hotel and repair during your overnight stop". What we will do for 5 $ at Nakai, then right after that we had a party with a big barbecue around a bonfire and chat with other tourists at Nakai Resort! The few beers we drank that night helped us forget that bad day.
During the scooter loop, we visited:
- Bhuddha Cave, OK because not too expensive.
- Tham Nang Ene Cave, a bit expensive for what it is, especially since there was not enough water in the cave to go for a boat ride.
- Vat Oudom Temple arriving in Lak Sao, which is not the most beautiful temple, but when we stopped, there was a "party" organized by the believers to celebrate the death of a monk. I said "party" because the people were very happy, eager to talk and even offered us a big lunch, as they do for temple believers. A little bit embarrassing for us, especially when we were leaving, we asked how much we owed, the answer was nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Impossible even to make a donation to the temple. They even offered us bottled water for the remaining drive! At the end, it was a great experience with real local spicy food!
- Dragon Cave, very nice!
- Kong Lor Cave, a crazy experience! Navigation by ear and headlamp on a motorized canoe for more than 7km to reach the other side of the mountain, and another valley. All this in the absolute darkness. A must-do in the region!
We will reach back Thakhek at the beginning of the afternoon of the 4th day on the loop. We will return the scooter to Wang Wang Scooter Rental and get back the passport and the 25 $ promised by the renter for compensation of all our problems. We will arrive right on time to get the last bus to Pakse. Another adventure of 8h for 330km, # 41km / h average.
We arrived late, around midnight, so we headed to a comfortable hotel on the Mekong banks. The next day we had said it's a rest day! What we have done it the right way! A little XNUMXh massage and a haircut later, we booked a scooter for the next day. This is to visit the surroundings the day after and to drive the famous Bolovens Plateau Loop ! On the road again!
The next day we went to visit Vat Phou a bit south of Pakse on the other side of the Mekong River. It is a classified Unesco site with a slight resemblance with Angkor temples, but way less crowded. The buildings on the site were built by the Kmers. It's really worth it. On the way back we climbed to the top of the mountain on the other side of the Mekong overlooking Pakse. A beautiful panorama of the city is offered to you and you can see the big golden Buddha who watches over the city! The adjacent temple also offers dozens of golden Buddha statutes, it's worth a look!
One more night in Pakse, and we leave with our scooter to ride the Bolovens loop! Smaller than the Thakhek loop, it offers access to dozens of waterfalls, all different. We found it a little less fun than the Thakhek loop because the scenery changes less often and the road at the start of the loop is just a freeway with 4 lanes! Here's what we did during this loop:
- Tad Fane & Tad Yuang waterfall, very beautiful waterfalls, a must do. The entrance fee + the parking fee for the scooter, make them a bit expensive
- Captain Hook, visit of a traditional village living of the culture of coffee and inhabited by the Katu ethnic group. It's a must do on the loop. This young man will explain everything about his village in perfect English. He is the only one in the village to speak English, because he is the only one that studied at the University. After his studies he went back to live in the village with his family. From religious rites (the Katu are animists) to culinary habits, from local medicine to coffee culture, you will learn that and more, all during a 2 hours walk around and in the village. He told us about some special traditions as for exemple that women who died in childbirth are buried in a separated cemetery (far from the village, because it brings bad luck), or on the main square of the village there is a stake where a puppy is beaten to death before starting any religious ceremony, or when there is an accidental death in a family, the family needs to leave the village and stay in exile from 3 to XNUMX years to avoid bringing bad spirits in the village. Bizarre but very interesting.
- Tad Lo, we spent 2 nights there because we did not really want to go for the big loop (yes there are 2 versions of the loop and we did the small one, which is just 200km). Tad Lo is a very nice place for hiking.
Back to Pakse around noon, we took a tuktuk and we get to the the 12km South Bus Station and take a Songthaew for Nakasong, we will get there at sunset (8km in 144h, # 5km / h average) to take a small boat and cross the Mekong to reach Dondet.
Dondet - The 4000 Islands
In Dondet, the last leg of our Laotian adventure, no bus, no car, just few scooters, just bicycles and pedestrians on the island. We were really happy! The atmosphere is so peaceful and relaxing! We had planned to spend 3 days there and we ended up extending for one more day. We did not do much except renting bicycles and visiting the Li Phi waterfalls on the Mekong River on the nearby island of Don Khone easily accessible via a historic bridge built by the French during colonization. These bike rides on the island were just pure happiness despite the heat: almost 40 degrees!
We really took the time to rest and get ready for Cambodia!
Summary of Laos
- Very nice and friendly Laotian people!
- The quiteness of the country compared to all its neighbors (only 6 million inhabitants) and it's so easy to travel there.
- The Thakhek loop with its grandiose landscapes and the visit of Kong Lor Cave!
- The chaotic and long time for transportation as well as the quality of the roads. We tried everything night bus, VIP bus, mini bus, songthaew, scooters, you will never exceed # 44km / h average
- Corruption of cops clearly visible.
- BeerLao, LaoLao, Rice Wine Beer
In the end we spent less than the estimated budget especially without counting. For 70 EUR per day for two you can really enjoy your time there, both in restaurants and activities! We only spent 61 EUR per day.