“Same same, But Diferrent”
Popular saying, which is also emblazoned on many souvenir t-shirts found in Laos. It is a country similar to its neighbours of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia in terms of religion, language and taste buds. Nevertheless, this country differs greatly with its laid-back atmosphere and friendly people.
The simple “hello” greeting will be quickly reciprocated by the locals with the same word or a genuine broad smile. Most are ready to help or engage in conversation, despite knowing little or no English.
My first visit to this country was back in Oct 2005 for a 2 weeks backpacking trip, which started from northern Luang Prabang down to Si Phan Don. Returning for a short visit this Jan 2013, the country has seen some economical progress with more foreign tourists and investments. But its relaxed charm and friendly people still persists – Thank god!
Places visited during Jan 2013 trip
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town is famed for its historical temples (wats) and royal capital status until 1946. Today it a place easily negotiated on foot with plenty of beautiful temples and variety of shops and restaurants tucked in between.
Start day early at dawn to witness the monks’ procession, as they walked through the main streets to collect sticky rice and food from locals & tourists alike. Explore the many temples around town. When you are too “templed” out, relax with a good cup of Lao coffee or deep massage or sauna at the Red Cross Centre (opposite Vat Visounnarath).
End the day with an easy climb up Phusi Hill. Recommended to climb up from eastern side, look out for white nagas guarding the steps up along Kingkitsarath Road. Midway up the hill, have a brief stop to check out Buddha’s Foot and Buddha statues dedicated for each day of the week. Upon reaching the top, one will be rewarded with amazing 360° view across Luang Prabang and the sun setting across the Mekong river.
If the night is still young, shop for some handicrafts for souveniers at the night market along Sakkaline Road. Just follow the the steps down from Phusi Hill towards all the red umbrellas set up along the main road which becomes traffic free daily from 6pm-10pm.
– Utopia (Lao & fusion, great ambience with garden setting besides Khan river). Follow signposts along main street outside Vat Visounnarath along alleyways towards riverside.
– Pak Houay Mixay Restaurant (good Lao food in modern setting). Walking along Sisavanggong road meeting Sakkaline road intersection, turn left before Luang Prabang primary school. Restaurant will be on left.
– Local noodle shop at end of Sakkaline Road, opposite Wat Xieng Thong (local haunt serving up good noodle soup)
– Saffron café along Mekong river for wonderful coffee
(Local ladies making food offerings for monks)
In the past, this place earned a notorious label as a backpackers’ all out party place. Somehow the atmosphere has mellowed when I returned this Jan 2013. There are still plenty of bars pumping out loud music, now up to certain hours and youngsters enjoying their drinks as they flow down Nam Song (Song river) on their tubes.
Nowadays Vang Vieng is attracting more discerning travelers who come here to enjoy the natural beauty and adventure activities like kayaking and caving. With a beautiful river running besides town and karst hillscape all around, it is heaven for people who enjoys the outdoors.
If you have time, do check out Vang Vieng Organic Farm just 4km north of main town centre. Local man started the project to promote organic farming and English amongst the local people (www.laofarm.org) and accepts volunteers for min 2weeks.
– Norkeo (good decent Lao food). Opposite Post Office / Vang Vieng District Office
– Riverside Bungalows restaurant (good location besides Nam Song, check out sunset whilst dining)
– Inthira Hotel restaurant (more pricey but better ambience). Along main road towards Tourism info centre.
(Country side around Vang Vieng – fields now empty but usually filled with paddy towards year end)
Capital city of Laos after 1946, it may bedazzle visitors who have only seen the smaller towns of Luang Prabang & Vang Vieng. There are plenty more shops, trendy cafes & restaurants. Definitely more vehicles on the road and distances between sights require assistance of local “tuk tuk” (taxi) especially when the sun heats up.
Nevertheless, the apparent hustle & bustle melts away to reveal again the laid-back nature of Laos. Traffic moves along calmly without the horrific honking of so many Asian countries. Vehicles slow down or even stop for pedestrians. People manning shops and stalls are happy for visitors to browse through their goods and will engage in some friendly haggle over prices.
Start day early at local morning market located behind the bus station at back of concrete Talat Sao shopping Mall. Wander behind the busy bus station, and you will be greeted with stalls selling variety of goods for the local households. Found some more exotic items in the fresh food produce section, such as tiny frogs and ants’ eggs. Fancy a salon treatment? There are even small stalls where young ladies are ready to cut, wash, dye and blow your hair. Most shops here close by 5pm, so get your shopping done early.
Spend rest of the day visiting the local temples of Wat Sisaket & Ho Phra Keo, iconic stupa of Phat That Luang and awesome city views from top of Victory Gate. Finish the day with grilled food washed down with cold Beer Lao along Mekong River. There’s the night market along Mekong river for can’t get enough of shopping done.
– Thonglor restaurant (grilled food along Mekong river). Along Quai Fa Ngum next to Wat Vieng Nyeun.
– Tamnak Lao (nearby Victory Gate, pricey and good Lao food in comfortable setting). From Patuxai (Victory Gate), walk towards direction of Phat That Luang. Restaurant on right.
(View of Vientiane city below from top of Patuxai / Victory Gate)
Kong Lor Caves
Located south east of Vientiane, visitors still need minimum of 2 days here. Most travelers put up night at Ban Nahin, after travelling anything between 4-7 hours along the 172km stretch of unpredictable road conditions. Things do get worse during the monsoon season, as there are several crossings over rivers which can be overflowing during the wetter months.
Next morning, head over to Kong Lor caves which is 45km away from Ban Nahin. Reward yourself to a cool dip in the emerald pools in front of the cave mouth, before embarking on the 1.5hr boat-ride through the 7.5km cave. There will be one stop where visitors will walk across to see the magnificent cave formations lighted up gracefully with white & yellow lights.
After emerging on the other side of the cave, visitors can have some lunch at the few stalls available. Then it’s either back to civilization on the same boat-ride or enjoy an overnight humbling homestay at the nearby Ban Natan village.
– Sainamhai Resort restaurant. Good home-cooked Lao food – steamed fish is recommended. Do tell cook less spicy, as they use the fiery bird-eye chillies here with the steamed fish.
(Long boats which take visitors on 7.5km ride through Kong Lor caves)