Dear Melissa and Patrick,
I’m currently sitting next to you on the Mona Rooftop bar overlooking a rainy Cat Ba Bay in Northern Vietnam. The cocktails are half price, it’s pretty chill.
So, here is everything I remember from Laos. It’s been over a month ago and two full countries since I left Vientiane but I can still remember the excellent and the awful…
I’ve split my experiences into sections with some general stuff first, I’m also putting this on my blog.
Laos is the first place I was a millionaire. You get 10,000 Laos kip to $1.17 (the dollar is freakishly strong right now) or 91p (GBP). I didn’t have trouble finding or using any ATMs but I stayed on the main tourist trail as you will see… Also try not to take Laos kip out of the country, no one will change it for you.
Crossing the border from Thailand
We stayed a night in Chiang Rai and took the local bus to the border. It could not have been easier, buses run from Chiang Rai bus station every half an hour. We crossed on a weekend and the border was deserted. Take the usual for a visa on arrival (double check this is still available before you travel) – passport photo and the current fee (35USD for UK and USA at time of writing).
After checking out of Thailand you take a shuttle bus to Laos (check when this bus is leaving before going to the loo or similar as there aren’t that many on a weekend). You then check in to Laos and get your visa, easy, there’s ATMs and money exchanges if you need them. The most boring part of the journey for us was waiting for the shuttle bus into to town to have enough people in it to leave.
All I can really remember is that this was a super simple border crossing. There’s a very thorough blog, with pictures, by TietoThailand if you need more info.
Loads of People slag off Huay Xai, the phrase ‘dusty border town’ has been used, but we had a great time here,
Accommodation: We stayed at the Gateway Hostel for the night before and after the Gibbon Experience. First we stayed in the dorm, then a twin as it was the same price (£10/$13pn). You can also have a go at haggling here. The private was nice enough. Not spectacular but cheap and in a very good location.
(Gateway hostel was also rat-free. I’m adding this after we watched a rat leap from a high cupboard to the floor in our current hotel. A new low bar for hotels has just been created.)
Food and Activities: We ate at Sensabay Restaurant a few times, it was pleasant, there’s a very friendly baby wandering around. We also ate ate Daauw Home, an excellent social enterprise, with an excellent balcony. Daauw Home is on the way up the hill to Wat Chomkao Manilat which is a beautiful temple. It is free to wander around and has a fantastic view of the sunset. We also helped the trainee monks practise their English here. Prepare answers for - ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Do you like football’ and ‘How is the weather?’
I had an excellent massage in Huay Xai at a shop with no name on the opposite side of the road to hotel. I think it might be the only place in Huay Xai. They just had a few mattresses on the floor but it was probably the best massage I’ve had in Asia.
The Gibbon Experience
Oh boy. The Gibbon Experience. It’s up there with Climbodia in Kampot, Cambodia and the Asia Outdoors Kayak/Climb day on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam as one of my favourite South East Asia experiences. It’s not cheap. I did the two day express option which had 21 ziplines, an overnight stay in one of the world’s tallest tree houses and jungle trekking and it cost £144/$185. Note that if you choose the two day option you don’t go deep enough into the jungle to see any gibbons.
The website says you need to be in ‘good physical shape’ to do the two day tour. What this means is if you are in ‘average physical shape’, or, if you were in ‘good physical shape but you sort of let yourself go whilst travelling’, the initial trek will almost kill you. It’s hot, it’s uphill and they go fast. I don’t want to put you off. Patrick and Melissa you’ll be fine. Everyone fitter than me, you’ll be fine. Everyone else… start training now or check out the other options where you don’t hike uphill for what feels like an eternity.
The ziplines are incredible, the jungle is beautiful, the tree houses are awesome and the Gibbon Experience is super ethical, your money is going into the national park and the local community. Do take a book for downtime in the tree house. The guides (who are great) give you some rice whiskey but you could BYOB if you can handle carrying it. Highly recommended. Check the weather before you book it.
The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
You have the option, when travelling to Luang Prabang from the north, to take the two day trip down the Mekong River. You can book this in Huay Xai, ask for a seat near the front (away from the noisy engine) and they’ll try their best. Also check what time the boat will actually leave, we sat on it for an unnecessary hour, thinking we were waiting for it to fill up, but it had always been scheduled to leave at 11.30am.
The slow boat is slow and scenic (and a boat) take a book and podcasts and have motion sickness pills on standby. And take lunch and snacks.
The biggest piece of advice I have is book your overnight accommodation in Pak Beng.
Wait, that needs to be bigger-
BOOK YOUR OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATION IN PAK BENG
Pak Beng is the overnight stop the slow boat makes and it is terrible. It is an airport departure lounge of a town. You can’t leave and the hotel owners know it. They crowd on the dock as you arrive to offer ridiculously cheap rooms. We took a cheap room, it was mouldy. Someone else took a cheap room and the hotel owner PULLED A KNIFE ON THEM when they said they didn’t want to have breakfast there. It’s not worth the hassle. Do some research and book yourself a decent room with good (genuine) reviews.
Weirdly the food in Pak Beng is really nice. We went to Hive Bar and got Indian food delivered, it was delicious. Our hotel made us a packed lunch – fried, rice, cashews and pineapple – and I can reveal that this is a meal that travels well.
Luang Prabang is my favourite place in Laos.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Sunrise Riverside Hostel, it was nice enough, good breakfast, $6pn and a sociable common area, but no private rooms I’m afraid. It was near Utopia bar which is just awesome, I visited the deck overlooking the Mekong in the evening, but apparently during the day there’s yoga and lots of digital nomad/creative types getting on with their projects there. Try and stay near here.
Activities: We went and saw the monks collecting food at dawn here – you’ll probably see this in Cambodia. We also visited Icon Klub. You’ll love this place Melissa, its like a little Parisian cafe, its run by an artist and has a box of uplifting quotes from inspirational people.
Kuang Si Waterfalls was big and brown when I went, but it’s normally turquoise. It’s fun to walk around, you can swim if it hasn’t been raining and it has a bear sanctuary within the park.
The UXO (Unexploded Ordinances) is the place to go to learn more about the Secret War and how its debris is still crippling Laos. Warning, America is 100% the bad guy here, but you’re probably used to that after Vietnam... It’s a short but powerful trip, it does also make a point of showing how much money the USA now gives t o help Laos clear the bombs.
My other recommendation for Luang Prabang is the Garavex Storytelling theatre which is 50,000kip a ticket. It’s an hour of Laos folktales (in English) with traditional music. It’s a small theatre so it’s worth trying to pick up tickets before the show. Their site says tickets from 6pm but we swung by at 5pm and there was someone there selling them.
Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
We took a minibus organised by the hostel. It’s not that far and I don’t really remember the journey so it’s not one to worry about.
Oh Vang Vieng. To say I loathed Vang Vieng is probably too strong, I think I just hated it.
Accommodation: We stayed two nights at Jenin Backpackers in a private room that cost £8/$10 per night. It was dull. There was no atmosphere but it was clean and the staff were nice enough. Nana Backpackers might get recommended to you, this is a party hostel and I think their pool gave everyone pink eye.
Activities: The main road is full of bars giving away free alcohol. The main activity there is river tubing from bar to bar down the Mekong, which is apparently awesome. I didn’t go because first Vang Vieng made my friend really sick, then it made me really sick, so I didn’t really do anything fun at all. I’m sure you’ll have a better time.
Vang Vieng to Vientiane
See Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. I do remember that this minibus was especially nice. I don’t remember how much it cost. Probably around $7… #yourwelcome.
I’d heard a lot of bad things about Vientiane but we stayed for a day and really enjoyed it.
Accommodation: We treated ourselves to the New Usouk Boutique Hotel which was the relatively expensive price of £15/$19pn. It was lovely, great location, nice rooms, highly recommended.
Activities: The best activity in Vientiane was not in Vientiane, it’s the Buddah Park. You can get the local bus (14) there for 6,000kip each way. For me it was a great mix of beautiful and amusing. I really enjoyed the one reclining Buddah which looks like its face is melting (it’s an art exhibition so I think I’m allowed to say that).
I also really enjoyed Earth Bar which had a good vibe, board games and reggae music.
A quick one on Vientiane airport if you’re passing through. Don’t expect to find ANYTHING beyond security because all there is is Pringles. Eat before you go through. Also don’t be too early, I think my check in/bag drop only opened two hours before my flight.
Have an excellent time guys! Hopefully see you in the Philippines! x
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