Well, for beginners, Laos can be intense, so intense that you begin to think of it as time spent in the bathtub with a glass of beer with not a gram of worry in this world. Yes, Laos makes you think, it makes you wonder how life can be so chilled when the world outside is burning.
There is an air of calm or perhaps a drop in temperature of a relaxed life in the proverbial sense you see. And the place grows on you. When I entered Luang Prabang, the very sight of mountains behind the runway with a few parked planes gave me the impression of a big treat in waiting.
I could classify this as one of the most laid back trips of my life as I barely ‘saw’ anything. It was more about cycling or biking around the villages and just soaking in the sights. So for those thinking of ticking off checklists of places to see, stay away. Go to the neighbouring countries.
Luang Prabang and around
Kuang Si falls
Probably my highlight of the trip was the famous Kuang Si falls accessible from Luang Prabang as a day trip. The surreal turquoise blue falls makes a photoshop-like wallpaper that would get anyone’s eyes wide open. You can book a tour at the hostel which costs about 5 usd. The driver would take money from you for the entrance which is another 2.5 usd after you arrive. On the way up, you pass the bear sanctuary which conserves sun bears. You’ll find some behind fences and a little one behind the glass. You can buy an expensive tshirt here which pays for the bears’ food apparently. I didn’t. Further on, you are met by turquoise blue waters cascading down a rock formation. You can begin taking photos hereon. As you proceed further up, it gets better and better, more water, more cascade, more falls. When you get to the main spot, prepare to be blown! If someone asks me to describe the word surreal, i’d show them a photo of this place. It is indeed breathtaking. You have a changing room, toilets and a restaurant. I didn’t bother stepping into the water for two reasons, one I cant swim, although some parts are shallow and shouldn’t be too much a worry. Secondly, the water was freezing cold. So no. From the main cascade point, you can go further up to the source of the river which isnt as impressive but since you have gone all the way there, might as well see it. It’s a 30 minute hike up. You also have an option to take a bamboo boat half submerged in the water for 1.5 usd which I didn’t.
Cycling around town
This quaint town is wedged between two rivers and makes for a perfect walk around the circumference with the many villas overlooking the waters. Most of the villas are converted to hotels or cafes so you can take all the time to visit pretty much each one through the day. Hire a cycle for 2 usd per day (till 7pm) and set off. While the ride itself isn’t very long, barely an hour or so at a leisurely pace, the stops account for the real experience. Sit by the river, enjoy the drinks.
It’s a shoppers paradise I say. One of the best kinds I have come across. The key stuff sold here are clothes, antiques, paintings and alcohol. All handicraft and inexpensive. Check out the shops selling household / accessories made out of aluminium. These are the remnants of the many bombs that went unexploded here or their casings. I picked up a ring. A good souvenir of the horror unleashed on this land. One tip, don’t bargain much. I mean, if you ask the price and simply frown, they’d drop a dollar. Help them out. Think of the money you spend eating out or even on Uber back home. So don’t be cheap.
‘Garavek’, a house with a small theatre setup that engages in traditional storytelling (in english). Basically folk tales about Luang Prabang and about. The ticekt is 4.5 usd and lasts an hour. Well worth the money. Run by two men, a storyteller and the other one an old man probably in his 80s who plays a traditional instrument called Khaen. It’s a wind instrument with a mouthpiece connected with about a dozen slim bamboo sticks. Apparently said to mimic a certain type of bird.
Vang Vieng and around
Tubing in Vang Vieng
As much as I was apprehensive about getting into the water since I can’t swim, this turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences in the country. In short, it’s a 4-5 hour long exercise where you float in the river on a tyre’s tube and stop at 3-4 bars on the way and costs about 7 usd with pick up and drop. You can read more about it in my detailed post http://getoutharish.com/tubing-in-laos/
Hire a bike for 5usd, fuel for another 2 usd and you are set to go on one of the most scenic rides in the world. Cross the nam song river for a fee of 1 usd if you are on a bike and an endless world of limestone cliffs and village scenes await. Some of the important stops when you bike around this route are the Phangern viewpoint, Nam Xai viewpoint and Blue lagoons (1, 2 and 3). The arterial roads leading to these spots barely exist and are just a trail of dirt so be prepared for a hand massage all throughout the ride.
View from Nam Xai cliff
Can be covered as part of your bike trip as mentioned in the previous note. The foothill has a small makeshift shop that sells drinks and some basic food. I decided to have my lunch here before heading up, not a bad choice actually. Entry here is a dollar, a standard you would realise for getting into just about any place. The climb is advertised to be 20-30 minutes but could take a little longer. It’s not very difficult, don’t wear flip flops though. Lined with bamboo railings which you cant really rely on, but enough trees to hold on to. The grip isn’t too bad for most of the hike as it is a combo of rocky and mud. The last 50 odd metres to the summit is completely rocky and you’d have to climb up on all fours. Once on the top, the view is breathtaking and you have wooden structures to park yourself under to escape the sun. There’s also a bike wedged between the rocks that you can sit on for a photo-op. I spent some time sitting in the place just taking in the view before heading back down. Did I tell you that the access road isn’t a road. After you take a turn from the main road towards this place, it’s a good 3 odd km of jerky ride on country paths.
Swimming in Blue Lagoon
Well I didn’t exactly swim. The more peaceful one as many reviews said compared to Blue Lagoon 1. 3 is apparently the best but is a bit off route so I didn’t go there. The access was worse than that to nam xai, almost 4 kms of no roads. And when I reached there, it was peaceful. Way too peaceful, I mean there were hardly a dozen people there. Having reached closer to sunset, the weather had gotten to get chilly and I was apprehensive of getting into the water. One because I cant swim, but you do get life jackets. The other was how to battle the cold once I come out of the water. So no, I sat and watched a bunch of koreans have fun in the water before heading back on the long ride.
You might wonder why I am talking about this again since it has already been suggested as a to-do in LP. Well, it’s different here, you literally are in the river while chilling. The platform you sit is submerged in the river as it flows underneath. Not many tourists head here, mostly locals who come for dinner. So do cross the bridge and experience it.
Partying in vang vieng
Okay, I am not myself a great party person but having come to the land of debauchery in SE Asia, I have to recommend this. The many clubs dotting the town of which Sakura and Viva are amongst the popular ones. You get free drinks at a certain hour and the music goes on till midnight as people dance their heart out. Also, the town is famous for cafes that sell ‘happy’ stuff laced with drugs. My suggestion, stay away. Drugs are illegal in this country and if caught, the price can really hurt. So respect the law and don’t do anything foolish, cops are all around in plain clothes watching! But enjoy the rest of the places and make sure you pick a non-party hostel unless you can sleep through drunk westerners parading around in the middle of the night.
I hired a cycle to get to the COPE centre which was nearly 3 kms away from the city centre and would have taken over 30 minutes to reach by foot. The centre has free entrance with a small restaurant inside the complex and a hospital too for treating the bomb victims. So this organisation is in the job of finding unexploded bombs and deactivating them and also helping affected people rehabilitate. I must say, they are doing a great job and the centre is sure to make you think. It’s not very large and displays the various types of bombs that were dropped and infographics on the history of all of it. A sample house from the countryside that uses the scrap metal from the bomb in its daily life is a good attraction there. One thing that almost moved me to tears was an 8 minute of a couple that had lost their son to one of these unexploded bombs that he inadvertently tampered with. They rushed him to two hospitals only to realise that neither had oxygen or blood and eventually brought him back to the house to see him die in it. The horrors of war are aplenty and I wonder if the perpetrators ever see this side of things and if they do, what goes through their mind. Well.
Sunset by Patuxai
The monument was built in the early 60s and is a landmark for the city sitting at the end of the road facing the Presidential Palace at the other end. Said to be incomplete due to the war, it is still one of the most magnificent modern structures I have come across in this part of the world. Right behind it is a fountain and some vendors selling food items. Grab one and watch the sun go down at Laos’ very own Arc De Triomphe.