We were quite skeptical about going to Laos the days before we arrived. Not because it was one of the last countries ruled by a Leninist Marxist communist regime, but because since our incursion into Hmong land during the Mae Hong Son loop in Thailand, we had inquired about the history and the present Hmong and learned that nowadays (in 2019) the Laotian armed forces (in coalition with the Vietnamese) bomb, hunt, kill and try to eradicate the members of a small community Hmong who lives in the jungle for more of 30 years. As a result of the help provided by this ethnic group in 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 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)
As much to tell you that we were not too reassured and thought to change the route of our trip to Asia, supporting little or no such ideology, but it was a bit late ...
So why "Sabaidee Laos" article title? Because everyone, but literally everyone, will tell you when you are in Laos! But what does it mean? Just "hello"! You will tell me nothing exceptional, but being tourists from Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand (without denigrating these countries), we were really surprised by the frequency with which we heard 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 border post of Chiang Khong-Huay Xai using the bridge of friendship. The border crossing itself is very simple since we had a bus from Chiang Rai 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 turns all night. But it will not be our most unpleasant trip to Laos, because we meet other French people with whom we will do a little bit of work.
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, to 5h 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 faithful. Unfortunately we were not brave enough to get up, the night bus left traces!
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 village famous for its homemade Saa paper, made from mulberry bark. Then we go to another village famous for the manufacture of Lao-Lao. It is a rice alcohol rather strong and not necessarily very good. For the folklore we will find in the small bottles sold on the spot or at night market scorpions or serpents inside. Scorpion for back pain and snake for strength. Yeah ... headache guaranteed!
We then go to the Tad Sae Waterfalls located about 20 km from Luang Prabang. They deserve! The road to get there is quite bumpy, muddy, then you have to take a boat to cross the Nam Khan River (tributary of the Mekong) to reach the site. 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 restaurants, Italians and after several months in Southeast Asia we had a desire to ... RACLETTE! Impossible do you think? Not at all! We find a small bar-restaurant that offers a good raclette traditional with French or Laotian cheese of choice, cold cuts, potatoes and ... pickles! A small glass of red to accompany all that and we slept like dormice!
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 2 night, but we could have spent more time there. We were suddenly very tired of the bus ride, near 11h for a trip announced at 4h (183km, # 11km / h average), with again its share of repairs en route. We were always with our French friends and we were full of good will 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 not to do it. scooter have discouraged us. We still took the Nam Song River as a buoy for 5 $ only, and it was really cool and relaxing. It is also here that our road and that of our friends have separated.
We only stayed one night and did not visit, 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 find the countryside. The next day we leave for Thakhek by VIP bus. Good in VIP we have once again the name! Another horrible trip, but this time without breakdown (336km in 10h, # 33km / h average).
At 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 still expect service 3 *! In short, we were happy to leave the next morning to make the loop on a scooter! Smaller than that of Mae Hong Son in Thailand, it is still more than 400km. Then we have a very nice scooter, a Yamaha Qbix! It's big, bigger than most rental scooters, but bigger than any other one!
Nice scooter yes, but visible! 100m after leaving, and at the only traffic light of the village, POLICE. I was saying so on the wrong path to go straight! In one way or another the policeman would have taken some money. This time it will be 50000 LAK, ie 5 EUR. It smelled like a corrupt cop, especially when it came to giving money by the side of the road, it was not necessary to see it! 5 EUR this remains a fine that the majority of Laotians could not pay.
The galley continues with our Qbix! After 50km and in full pampa, the scooter stops suddenly. We walk by pushing the scoot on 200-300m to find a restaurant or shop. And it's complicated to communicate with the owner of the restaurant, then the village is 5-6km anyway. Well she understands our problem and makes sure that the village mechanic comes to take a look. A change of battery later that turns out to be useless, we get to contact the scooter rental. Rather effective, it sends us a new scooter illico presto, 2h after! It's almost 16h and we have our new scooter, older, more miles, less space for our 2 big glutes, but it rolls! This is unfortunately not the end of the galleys! Stopping 20km further to take a picture, we realize that there is a big oil leak on the crankcase! We remind the owner of the scooter, which after explanation, tells us, no problem, you can drive to your hotel and repair in the village stage. What we will do for 5 $ at our Nakai party before savoring a delicious barbecue around the log fire to chat with other tourists at Nakai Resort! The few beers we drank that night helped us forget that complicated 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 on Lak Sao, which is no more beautiful than that, but when we stopped, we came across a big party organized by the villagers to celebrate the death of a monk. I say "the party" because the people were very happy, eager to discuss and even offered us a very hearty lunch, as it does for temple worshipers. A little embarrassing for us, especially when we were leaving, we asked how much we owed, the answer was none other than "nothing, nothing, nothing". Impossible even to make a donation to the temple. They even give us bottled water for the road! In the end, a great experience!
- Dragon Cave, very nice!
- Kong Lor Cave, a crazy experience! Navigation by ear and headlamp on a canoe for more than 7km to reach the other side of the mountain, and another valley. All this in absolute darkness. A must-do in the region!
We will join Thakhek at the beginning of the afternoon of the 4th day. We will return the scooter to Wang Wang Scooter Rental and recover the passport and the 25 $ promised by the renter for compensation of all our galleys. We will arrive at the last local bus to Pakse. Another adventure of 8h for 330km, # 41km / h average.
We arrived late, around midnight, so head to a comfortable hotel on the Mekong. The next day we had said rest! What we have done! A little massage and a haircut later, we reserve a scooter for the next day to make the famous loop of Pakse and also visit the surroundings! On the road again!
The next day we went to visit Vat Phou south on the other side of the Mekong River. It is a classified Unesco site with a slight resemblance to the temples of Angkor, but less and less crowded. The buildings on the site were built by the Kmers. It's really worth it. On the way back we will climb 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 gold Buddha who watches over the city! The adjacent temple also offers dozens of golden Buddha statutes, it's worth a look!
One more night on Pakse, and we leave with our scooter direction loop Bolovens! Less than the Thakhek loop, it offers access to dozens of waterfalls more impressive than the others. We found it a bit less fun than Thakhek because the scenery changes less often and the road on the start and on a large part of the return trip is a fair 4 freeway! Here's what we did during this loop:
- Tad Fane & Tad Yuang waterfall, very beautiful waterfalls to see absolutely. The entrance fee + the parking of the scooter, make them a bit expensive in the end.
- Captain Hook, visit of a traditional village alive of the culture of coffee 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 master English, because the only one to have gone to study and to have returned to live in the village. 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 walk around 2h and in the village. As much to say that it calms a little to see a cemetery dedicated to the dead women during the childbirth (far from the village, because it brings bad luck), to see the place of the village with the stake or is attached a puppy before being kicked in order to start any religious holidays, or to see an empty house where the walls were removed because one of the family members died of an accident. It brings bad luck to the village, suddenly this family must go into exile for at least 3 years in order to scare away this curse. 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 a few 200km). It 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, little scooter, just bicycles and pedestrians. As much to say to you that one was happy! The atmosphere is so peaceful and relaxing! We had planned to spend 3 days there and in the end we extended a day. We did not do much except rent bicycles and visit 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 small bike rides on the island were just pure happiness despite the sweltering 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 calm of the country compared to all its neighbors (only 6 million inhabitants) and the ease 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 budget estimate and especially without depriving ourselves. For 70 EUR per day for two you can really enjoy yourself, both in restaurants and activities! We only spent 61 EUR per day.