Laos (pronounced as Lao), is one of the poorest country in Southeast Asia. A mountainous and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north.
Communist Laos flung open its doors to tourism in the early 1990s and the decades since have witnessed a steady growth in traveller numbers. The country is changing fast, but the lifestyle of the people remains the same, revealing that the true meaning of “Lao PDR” is Lao – Please Don’t Rush.
I took the longest route to travel from Chaing Rai to Luang Prabang, Northern Laos. The whole journey took about 2-days, mainly on the boat. I would recommend to book through an agency to help you arrange the necessary transportation. I had calculated the cost and the difference is about 200-300Baht, better than risking taking unreliable public transport and missing the boat or without a seat. (They have overloaded the boat due to overselling of tickets and I kinda feared the boat might sink!) 😨😨😨
From Huay Xai to Pakbang village is about 8-hours. Once you reached the village, you will be approached by the villages selling their accommodations for the night stay. Most guesthouses offer twin bed-room which cost about 500Baht (USD15). If you are travelling solo like me, it will be a wise choice to make friends on the boat so you have someone to share a room with.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the town was described by the global body as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.”
There are only 2 purposes for me to visit this touristic town on this trip: Kwang Si Waterfall and Tak Bat.
About halfway between the park entrance and the waterfall is the Asiatic Black Bear rescue centre, which houses a couple of dozen animals rescued from the hands of poachers and traffickers. The bears are in large enclosures with trees and some simple toys like tire swings. An elevated viewing platform has been built near the enclosure so visitors can observe these endangered animals 🐻🐻🐻
After exiting the rescue centre, continue to head upwards the trail and you will see the waterfall.
While I had not decided where to go next, most days I am just wandering around. Most of the temples need to pay entrance fee so I just take pictures from outside.
There is a daily night market in town and the most popular hidden bar where all backpackers chill every night. You will always see familiar faces and quite a nice place to meet other backpackers to exchange information.
On my last day in Luang Prabang I went for Tak Bat with the other girls I met on previous day. Known as Alms Giving Ceremony, Tak Bat is a daily tradition which gives you an opportunity to experience an ancient Lao tradition. However, as more and more travellers discover Laos, the Buddhist tradition has turned into a circus show with disruptive and disrespectful behavior from tourists. As such, more and more locals stopped participating the ceremony to avoid being part of the show.
A small town 3-hours away from Luang Prabang on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Kiaow boasts a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views and genuine local colour. This is the place where I can fully connect with nature and enjoyed me-time without interactions with other travellers after 3-weeks.
What I did in Nong Kiaow were mainly hiking and kayaking.
Instead of heading to Vang Vieng, the party-town, I decided to go Vientiane instead. As Nong Kiaow is a small town with limited buses in and out, I had experience my worst sleeper-bus ride.
The bus is divided into 2-rows of double-deck beds. Bad news is, it’s a sharing bed. Therefore, I shared mine with a plump local lady who took up 3/4 of the space the moment she laid down. The bus smelled of leek and onions (locals bringing it to the city to sell), and a girl opposite me kept vomiting non-stop. There was no proper toilet stop, you simply have to pee along the road the driver stopped for you. By the time I have reached Vientiane, I was in a very foul mood.
For many years a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism Vientiane has undergone vast changes and continues to expand. With a population of only 850,000, this is likely to be the smallest capital city you will find in Southeast Asia.
Days spent in Vientiane was as slow as I spent in Nong Kiaow. Coming to the end of the trip, money is running low so I walked from one place to another most of the time. I made friends with the cook of the hostel and often get free food.
It’s not the local Lao cuisine you must try in Vientiane, it’s FRENCH cuisine! I had tried in a restaurant near my hostel. A 3-course set meal cost me 120,000kip (USD15). Totally worth it!!
Between 1964 and 1973 the US army dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is a non-profit based in Vientiane that runs rehabilitation centres aiming to provide care and support to UXO survivors, including orthotic and prosthetic devices and physiotherapy.
Buddha Park is a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism depicting various deities and scenes from both religions. The park provides no context for the various myths it depicts, except for the giant concrete pumpkin that is supposed to represent hell, earth and heaven.
Instead of taking a shared tuk-tuk which cost 70,000kip (USD9), try taking a local bus which cost only 6,000kip (less than USD1). From Central Bus Station from Talat Sao, take Bus route 14, an air-conditioned green and white bus that runs regularly to/from the Friendship Bridge. Buddha Park is a few kilometers past Friendship Bridge.
Last but not least, don’t forget to catch sunset at Mekong Riverfront. This is also where the local night market is.
I’m already looking forward to my next trip back to Laos, exploring other hidden gems!!