A Travellerspoint blog

Tha Khaek and the loop

sunny 31 °C

One of the top destinations in Laos according to Lonely Planet is the Kong Lo Caves, roughly halfway down the country. The guidebook recommended a 3 / 4 day tour on scooters that includes more caves and scenic views. As I'm quite fond of driving I chose to do this. For my night in Tha Khaek I stayed at the lodge popularised by 'loopers' and easily found a group.

We started out quite late on the first day and visited one cave. You're never quite sure how good or big they will be but you always have to pay up the road, before you can even see it. The cave we visited felt very artificial as it was filled with multi-coloured strip lights and concrete staircases! That evening we stayed in bungalows beside a smaller picturesque river.

The second day was a bit strange. My group consisted of 2 Dutch people in their early 20s and a French guy who was about 50. Throughout the day we gradually realised just how stubborn and irritating the French guy was and tried to politely make plans to go separetly on day 2. (To give you an idea of what he's like, he refused to spend the equivalent of £1.50 to visit a cave yet was very proud of himself for managing to steal a chocolate bar from a snack stand owned by a poor Laos family). I set off slightly later and managed to overtake him, and the poor Dutch girl who was stuck with him, as he sat in a restaurant. While trying to make good time I managed to fall off my moped during a tricky dirt track section of the morning ride. Thankfully it was thick dust that caused it as this is actually not that bad to fall into. There was a slight graze on each knee and a bit of cosmetic damage to the bike. Some people might blame this accident on the Metallica I chose to accompany my relaxing mountain drive.

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Later that day I bumped into the Dutch guy from the original group and we completed the rest of the loop together and that same afternoon we got to the Kong Lo cave in time to do the tour. The caves were very big and impressive. Perhaps not as 'wow' as I thought but then I have been visiting a lot of caves recently. The fun started on the way back as the 2 boat guides were a bit drunk from the beers we bought them at the halfway break area. The water is very shallow in the caves and the guides kept on running aground, meaning we all have to get out the boat as they drag it over the rocks. At one stage we met a boat full of heavy cargo that needed to be dragged up and over a ridge of stone. We all helped out and it took about 8 of us to get it upstream.

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That evening we really wanted to experience a homestay so drove into the nearby village and were offered a bed and food within about 30 seconds. It was the same price as a guesthouse but felt much better for putting money straight into the hands of a local family (of 8 children!!!). It was an eye opening experience seeing how the rural Laos people live; cooking around a small fire inside the living area, 3 bedrooms for the whole family and telephone connected to a satellite outside.

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Getting back to Tha Khaek the following afternoon meant we completed the loop in 3 days and were able to take an overnight bus that evening to Southern Laos – at least we would be able to sleep easily on the bus! The bonus was being able to return the bike without any problems over the minor cosmetic damage caused by my fall.

Posted by oli.heeley 01:27 Archived in Laos

Vientiane

sunny 31 °C

The best part of visiting Vientiane was probably the journey there. Tired of buses I took the opportunity to kayak down the river to the capital. In the end it involved a few hours in a bus either side of the kayakuoing but it was great fun in a group of great people.

There was a grade 1 rapid which was easily dealt with and after a while we stopped for lunch. Our guides lit a fire and cooked chicken kebabs to go with some fried rice. The dependable Laos landscape provided the beautiful backdrop.

I had originally planned to spend maybe 4 or 5 nights in the capital but on arrival I realised there wasn't much to do and it was far from being as pretty as Luang Prabang. My only day consisted of a walk around town seeing the arc de triomphe replica and then people watching and book reading at sunset by the "riverside." In dry season the otherwise wide river is so far away you can only see it in the distance. I must be fairly approachable as I had interesting conversations with the 2 people that came and sat next to me. One was a former trader on the Japanese stock exchange who retired at 45 and the other a local primary school teacher with his daughter, who was very keen for me to come to his school and teach English. There are many opportunities for those who have English as their first language (and a neutral accent).

After 2 nights I continued south down to Tha Kaek.

Posted by oli.heeley 00:11 Archived in Laos

Vang Vieng

sunny 31 °C

I wasn't sure what to expect from Vang Vieng. It had a reputation as an all out party and tubing place before the government banned the riverside bars last year. Too many stupid and intoxicated people were winning the award for Darwinism by proving natural selection.

It turned out to be a half deserted but pleasant town in a spectacular setting with a surprising amount to do. The landscape is slow and easy river winding it's way through karst limestone formations like jagged teeth.

On day one I spent ages getting lost in rice fields while trying to take shortcuts. I climbed and crawled down a cave and went for a quick dip in a cloudy pool at the bottom. Pitch black when our torches were off. The pool continued into the darkness beyond so I didn't dare go too far for fear of waking a balrog.

Day 2 I rented a bicycle and went at a leisurely pace on a circuit away from town. Took longer than expected due to the sheer amount of school kids I had to shout hello to and high 5 along the way. Interesting to have a conversation with the older students as well. Across Laos it was the case that kids speak much better English than their parents so information and purchasing was done through them. The day finished with another cave and a dip in a blue lagoon that was thankfully in the open air this time.

Day 3 I rented a scooter to visit the caves north of town including one where you can tube underneath. The other caves were good but I was kind of getting used to themby now. When I arrived at the caves a young local guy started to walk with me and show me the way. I knew that this service would most likely end in a tip but I was happy for the help. But after the last cave I followed him back to the village through a small wood where he stopped and asked for 200,000 kip (£15!). With no one else around I realised the obvious attempt to intimidate and scare me but I just said I needed a drink from the village and walked back. Before leaving I gave him the equivalent of £1.50 which was fair in terms of the service. While the vast majority of Laos people are pleasant if not quite indifferent to tourists this was a reminder that there are always people around who could go further than just the standard extortionate pricing. Afterwards I visited a waterfall which was all but pointless in the dry season.

Day 4 I took it easy relaxing in my hammock. My big private bungalow wasn't the cheapest option but it was so nice with an amazing view I was happy to shell out the £5 per night. At sunset I had another 'first' and new form of transportation on this trip. It was an hour long hot air balloon ride that went over the town and then up the river at tree top height. It was strange just gliding along as the basket was so still and didn't feel anywhere near as precarious as I thought it would be. It provided a perfect view of the scenery and was worth every penny.

That evening was one of those moments where a space of 10 minutes can change your next few days. I was trying to get on a kayak tour to my next location but with no one else interested it would cost $100. Leaving my phone number with the travel agent I returned to my bungalow for a quiet night with my book wondering if I should just get the bus or wait another day and take my chances. I then received a call to say they had a full group for tomorrow materialise so I rushed back to pay. The guys then recommended I visit a local festival not far from town but with an early start in mind for the next day I decided not to. On my way back I thought how stupidly safe and sensible that was so showered and set off!

It's so rare and valuable to get a real insight into local cultures. Arriving at the festival I fell in with a group of guys who spoke good English and were on hand for any explanations. It was great to be one of the few tourists there. The Laos drinking style is really sociable. One bottle at a time is opened and distributed around the table into small glasses with ice. It's really a group practice and we had to say cheers nearly every time I lifted my glass... The live band was playing a sort of traditional but pop rock style of music that was fun to dance to. Halfway through every song the tempo would suddenly double. After midnight the crowd (a good portion families) drifted off and it was the end of a very fun and action filled time in Vang Vieng.

Posted by oli.heeley 03:17 Archived in Laos

Phonsavanh

sunny 21 °C

An 8 hour serpentine road up into the mountains led me to the town of Phonsavanh. An emergency stop was needed for one member of the minibus and it put my ability to read on the road to the test. The end couldn't come soon enough.

Phonsavanh felt incredibly plain and industrial after Luang Prabang but my purpose here was to visit the Plain Of Jars. Huge stone pots of varying sizes are strewn across a number of sites in the Laos countryside. We have no idea what their function was but it's speculated to be either for fermenting rice wine (which would be SOME party) or for a kind of burial ritual. In some of the better preserved jars you can see an inner and outer lip that once secured the heavy stone lids. I really enjoyed walking amongst them wondering what the people were doing thousands of years ago and just how they managed to transport the massive stone jars to their final resting place.

The real surprise of Phonsavanh was how much I learnt about recent Laos history specifically the country's involvement in the Vietnam war. Many restaurants play documentaries every evening so it's almost impossible to visit the town without being educated. The CIA operated what's called the Secret War, arming and training local men despite the US declaring they wouldn't enter the country. And then the US air force dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined in World War 2. A person in one documentary said this could be considered one of the world's biggest war crimes and most people have no knowledge on the subject. During the operation a whole tribal civilisation was wiped out.

On the second day in town I had one of those great experiences made better by being totally unexpected and unplannable. Walking on the outskirts of town with my 2 companions we heard a bar playing really loud music so stopped by to see what the deal was. What happened after was karaoke and lots of drinking starting from 1pm in the afternoon. Our quiet drink quickly escalated after being invited onto a table of 5 local girls with very good singing voices. It was such a different culture in that everyone took part in the singing - being drunk and loud wasn't a prerequisite. Even a young guy who was just having a quiet meal with his girlfriend took part.

Two days was plenty here so it was time for another roller coaster bus ride down the mountain.

Posted by oli.heeley 02:49 Archived in Laos

Luang Prabang

sunny 30 °C

Travelling to the far corners of the world it's inevitable that you begin to miss certain foods. For me this included real French baguette and good cheese...hello Luang Prabang.

This amusingly named town at the northern end of Laos is a curious mixture of French, Thai and Chinese influences. The end result was a stunningly gorgeous town where you never needed to do more than relax in a cafe with a good cup of coffee and croissant. The guesthouses are the main architectural feature, reflecting the towns influences including some that look straight out of France. It's such a pleasure when good architecture isn't confined to civic buildings, business units and expensive residences.

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To say the atmosphere in Laos is relaxed is most definitely an understatement. The country's unofficial motto is 'Please don't rush'. Food and drink comes when it comes, who cares when? What are you in a rush for? It really does test your patience when you wait an hour for a cappucino though. I think I'll call this LaoSpeed, similar to ThaiTime where everything in Thailand happens way after it's meant to; meals, buses, trains, etc.

On New Year's Eve we (the slow boat group) decided to splash out and eat at a fancy French restaurant. I had a starter of deep fried camembert and a main of duck washed down by a lovely red. Coffee came after at LaoSpeed. Total bill each was under £15. Then we had a walk through town watching people light Chinese Lanterns. It was really good to see just as many locals out celebrating than tourists. New Years was observed in a bar with a good view of the street and accompanied by large amounts of drink, as is tradition.

Luang Prabang hosts the best nightmarket I've seen so far. No dodgy knockoffs it's more about handicrafts although not really unique. There are about 6 different kinds of stalls selling the same goods in each. Managed to replace my hoodie and pick up a few presents. Also decided this would be a good time to start collecting masks from every country I visit. Lets see how that one plays out...

After 5 nights my group was heading in their separate directions and I wanted to leave while I was still in love with the town. Time to head south for the first time in my trip.

Posted by oli.heeley 06:46 Archived in Laos

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