From Yangon, Myanmar, I flew into Luang Prabang via Bangkok for one week in Laos. Laos was the second country I visited on my solo Southeast Asian backpacking trip and one I was really looking forward to.
Laos is somewhere that many people visit for the sake of it because it’s conveniently connected to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
However, many people fall in love with Laos when they arrive and find it difficult to leave. I am definitely one of these people. Here is my travel diary from my one week in Laos, which – as emphasised in my previous posts on Laos – was not nearly enough time.
Day 1 – Yangon, Myanmar to Luang Prabang, Laos
I arrived late into Luang Prabang, but was treated to a spectacular sunset as I landed. As I queued to get my visa, I stared out of the airport windows and was surprised to see gorgeous mountains of green.
After some confusion with my hostel transfer, the driver finally picked me up and drove me into the city centre just as night fell. The ‘city centre’ was really more of a small town centre; a far cry from the dirty, gritty, busty metropolis of Yangon.
Luang Prabang feels more like a peaceful and enchanting village; something straight out of an Enid Blyton book. Elfish lanterns and fairylights hang from trees and wound around the Indochinese villas. The lights and the moon reflect deep blues and purples into the Mekong. I can’t gush about Luang Prabang enough, as you may have found in 24 Hours in Luang Prabang.
I arrived at DownTown Backpacker’s and the receptionist apologised for the delay, ‘Sorry! The driver was too drunk!’ as if that explained it all. I settled in, but with such a limited time in LP and only one week in Laos, I wanted to make the most of my evening.
I followed the throngs of backpackers to alleyways of street food. Tables were stacked high with a buffet of vegetarian fare, while skewers and ribs were sizzling on barbecue stands and mangoes and dragon fruits were cut up at nearby stalls. I grabbed a plate and piled it with noodles and veggies, then passed it to the stallholder to heat up in a wok.
There were even prawn crackers – the most illusive of Asian foods in Asia! I also washed my meal down with a ubiquitous Beerlao, the famous local brew.
Wandering around the Handicraft Night Market there were stalls upon stalls of things that I desperately wanted to buy, but knew they would never survive the journey home. Instead, I wove between the lanes of lanterns, knick-knacks and sarongs, window shopping and nibbling at a bag of coconut pancakes.
Day 2 – One Day in Luang Prabang
I started the day with a series of temple visits: Wat Xieng Muan, Wat Wisunarat and Wat Xieng Thong. The latter was the most impressive. Wat Xieng Thong is the postcard-perfect temple most associated with Luang Prabang and Laos, with its long, sloping roofs and monks in apricot robes.
As the hottest part of the day hit, I ate brunch at Le Banneton, famed for its French food. Sat in the cafe with my French brunch and watching the world pass by, I could have sworn I was back in Europe.
Next, I walked along the chocolate Mekong, watching locals build a footbridge out of bamboo. I walked around the Royal Palace Museum barefoot, taken back by the intricate mosaics and detailed murals on the walls. I dipped back into another cafe for a refreshing Laos-style iced coffee (condensed milk and a whole ton of syrup).
Later, I climbed Phu Si hill to watch the sun set, but apparently the rest of Luang Prabang had the same idea. After taking in the view as comfortably as I could with hundreds of others dueling with their selfie sticks. I walked back down the hill the long way and watched the sun set behind the mountains and the Mekong from my own serene horizon-viewing spot.
My day ended at L’etranger Books & Tea, an adorable cafe that served up Laos and French-inspired food as well as nightly film screenings. I reclined back into pillows and watched something with George Clooney and Julia Roberts. It was a surreal end to a surreal day in a place that had married east and west in a way I had never experienced before.
Day 2 – Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
The dawn bus to Vang Vieng felt even harder for the fact I was having to leave Luang Prabang so soon. The journey took around six hours and at one point we had to get out of the minibus and help the diver push it over a bump in the road. Such are bus journeys in Southeast Asia!
For those who are unfamiliar, Vang Vieng has a certain reputation. VV is a small town in the mountains, next to the Nam Song River and is most famous for tubing; an activity where you hire an inflatable tube for the day and float down the river, drinking and visiting the riverside bars along the way.
Vang Vieng was certainly different to the pretty Luang Prabang I had left behind. The town was filled with bad burger joints, dodgy drinking holes and ‘happy bars’, where the food and drinks came with ‘added flavour’. These bars played episodes of Friends on repeat all day long.
I had come to Vang Vieng for the scenery and an escape from the city, despite knowing the town’s reputation. However, I hadn’t quite realised that VV is essentially the ‘Shagaluf’ of Southeast Asia.
I arrived at Nok et Mika Guesthouse, run by a French-Laos couple and advertised as being ‘away from the tubing and clubbing crowd’, though it was really just one street down from the main road. I seemed to be the only person staying in the street-level dorm, though there was one other bed made up in the corner.
When I got back to my hostel in the evening, I realised that the other occupied bed in the dorm belonged to the owners’ 10-year-old son. Awkward.
After a hectic few days of travelling and sightseeing, I was ready to chill out. I grabbed some food at a restaurant that served every kind of food imaginable, but badly. I was half way through a bland plate of phad thai when a cat jumped up on the table and started tucking into my plate Lady-and-the-Tramp-style. The waitress just laughed.
Day 3 – Kayaking & Power Cut, Vang Vieng
I booked a tour that included tubing through a cave (no Beerlao involved), a barbecue lunch and kayaking down the Nam Song. Most of my tour group was Korean, but the guide deftly switched between Korean, Thai, English, Laotian, Chinese and Japanese to include everyone who was there.
Tubing through the cave was actually more creepy than anything, as it was pitch black and cold, with only a rope to guide the way. The lunch was much more satisfying, with chicken and vegetable skewers, rice and bananas dipped in condensed milk. We were also supervised by a fist-sized spider who hung out in the bushes next to us.
The highlight of the day was kayaking down the Nam Song. Ignoring the few drunken tubers, the towering mountains were beautiful, the water was cool and I had finally found the Vang Vieng I had come to see.
Stopping at one of the bars halfway down the river, the guides ordered some local dishes, which were probably the first authentic Laos dishes I had tried. We grabbed handfuls of sticky rice from steaming bamboo baskets and dipped them into salt, chili and garlic pastes. My tongue was on fire and my eyes were streaming, but it was delicious.
Arriving back at my hostel as the sun was going down, I showered and Skyped home. I was just saying goodbye to my mum and my nan when there was a loud BANG and all the lights went off.
I poked my head out of the dorm door and saw that all the street lights were off too. Oh, a power cut. I was used to these in Myanmar and waited by candlelight for the power to return. One hour passed, then two, so I asked the hostel owners when they expected the electricity would come back on.
‘When it goes BANG, like that? Maybe 24 hours? If we’re lucky, maybe they can fix it tomorrow.’
My eyes went wide. Shit. I had no way to contact my parents or Rob, who I had scheduled to Skype after my mum. It was also stiflingly hot without the fans on in the dorm room.
‘Is it OK if we leave the dorm room door open tonight, so it’s a bit cooler?’ the hostel owners asked.
Uh, the dorm room that opens straight out into the unlit street? Um… NO!?
So that was the most hot and uncomfortable night ever. Were my eyes open or closed? Every noise was a rapist or murderer creeping into the room, every tickle of sweat was a cockroach or a spider or a snake crawling up the bed posts onto the mattress.
Needless to say, I did not sleep until dawn broke.
Day 4 – The Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng
Shattered from an uncomfortable night, I walked around town desperately trying to find WIFI. One part of the town was unaffected by the power cut, but naturally every backpacker had congregated there and using the WIFI or phones was impossible. Food was also out of the question, as no restaurants could operate properly without power.
As I headed back to my hostel, there was a telltale second BANG.
‘That means they broke it again,’ the hostel owners shrugged.
I tried to explain that I needed to contact my family to let them know I was OK. Would I be able to use their phone if it worked and if I could pay them for the international call? After much negotiation and many lost-in-translation hand gestures, they finally passed a phone to me just as it started ringing.
It was Rob on the other end of the line! He had been calling all morning, but the owners didn’t recognise the language he was speaking (Derbyshire-lish) and had just put the phone down on him.
Finally able to stop worrying and get on with my day, I took a trip to the Blue Lagoon. The pools of turquoise looked like they were home to mermaids, but were also home to crowds of Korean tourists in fluorescent life jackets and Westerners in barely-there bikinis. I stayed for an hour or so, cooling off in the water and watching people play on the rope swing.
By some miracle, the power was finally back on by the evening and I celebrated with a cheeky banana pancake with peanut butter and condensed milk from a street vendor. (Starting to think I have a condensed milk addiction).
Day 5 – Vang Vieng to Vientiane
The natural scenery of Vang Vieng had been incredible. However, I was more than happy to leave the more seedy side of Vang Vieng behind. (Not to mention my 10-year-old dorm mate).
I was now two weeks into my solo Southeast Asian backpacking trip. Coming to the end of my one week in Laos, I turned my gaze to the capital, Vientiane. Vientiane was more similar to other Southeast Asian cities I was used to. Yet, it still had the small-town charm and laid-back French influence of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.
After a proper shower at my hostel, Avalon B&B, I flicked through my guide book. Then, I headed out at a cool 3pm for some temple-hopping.
Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaew, opposite each other and next to the Presidential Palace, were picturesque and serene. I also had a catch up with the Mekong, my recurring travel buddy.
As the sun began to go down, I walked up Th Lan Xang to Patuxai; an awe-inspiring building resembling the Arc de Triomphe. Locals also call Patuxai the ‘vertical runway’. It was built using concrete donated by the US that was meant for an airport! Naturally, this stunning building had pride of place in the middle of a busy roundabout.
I spent the rest of my evening at the Night Market, eyeing up different foods from the street vendors. Vang Vieng had tested my love for Laos, but in Vientiane, I was falling for the country once again.
Day 6 – Buddha Park, Vientiane
I spent the morning cooling off and getting my tan on at the local swimming pool. Then, I ventured to Buddha Park by bus, just outside of the city centre. Finding the bus and bus stop was a challenge in itself. Not even locals who worked at the bus station knew where each bus started and stopped.
I took a risk that paid off and managed to get to Buddha Park by early afternoon. Buddha Park, also known as Xieng Khuan (spirit city), is a strange mix of religion and art. It’s a playground of sculptures that mix Buddhism and Hinduism, which you can explore and even climb through.
After a few hours at the park, I caught the bus back to town. I got my last fix of Indo-French cafe fare before my early flight the next morning.
Day 7 – One Week in Laos Comes to an End
As the tuk-tuk rattled along the main road, I was sad to be leaving Laos after such as short time. I’d only planned for one week in Laos, but I knew I should have planned for more time. Laos had captured my heart and I knew I would be back again one day.
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