It is true to say that Giles and I didn’t really know what to expect of Laos. It had been recommended by a lot of people, and everyone seemed to mention getting boozed up, going down a river on a tube, so there was a part of me asking if this is going to be some version of a backpackers’ Magaluf. I’ll say upfront, it absolutely isn’t (not that it would have stopped us if it had…) and has been one of our favourite destinations so far on our travels.
After an overnight train from Bangkok, and with a little help from a friendly Norwegian man, who kept saying he was a millionaire although his lack of teeth said otherwise, we arrived in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. It’s small and compact, but very laid back and the drivers actually let you cross the road here. Vientiane may not have all the sights of other capitals but there is a quiet charm which we really enjoyed, as well as some amazing and cheap little restaurants and beautiful sunset over the Mekong.
So far we’d been really lucky in our travels in the accommodation we had booked, but our choice in Vientiane was verging on the weird. It was a restaurant operating as a guesthouse, but throughout our stay there were no other customers either in the guesthouse or the restaurant. With the lack of activity, it seemed that the people working there were always asleep. It’s not that we felt unsafe, just everyone working there tended to look at us oddly and we had a distinct feeling of always been watched. Call it paranoia but something just wasn’t right.
Our next destination was the (in)famous backpacker stopping point of Vang Vieng. This is the place that everyone knows for the tubing – literally sitting on a rubber tyre, stopping at numerous bars and drinking copious amounts of Lao whiskey shots. However, that isn’t quite the current reality – the town is undergoing a massive transformation and tubes have been swapped for kayaks and riverside cycles. Given our previous tumultuous experience on a kayak together, Giles and I decided to stick to our own individual tubes.
It was certainly a relaxing afternoon, but with only a handful of other tubers we did feel a bit of a spectacle to the hoards of Japanese and Korean kayakers who repeatedly felt the need to splash us with their oars. Any feeling of relaxation I had instantly disappeared at the end of the tubing course when I mistakenly got caught in what I would describe as severely choppy rapids (Giles recalls it differently). Trying to steer it towards the river shore was impossible and as I was being swept towards what I perceived to be my death, Giles simply waved and smiled from the shore. Panicking, I jumped off nearly losing my wallet, phone and tube, but absolutely losing my dignity for yet another (and probably not the last) occasion on our travels.
With the stunning scenery that surrounds Vang Vieng, we also took bikes out the explore the countryside and see some of the caves and hills. Compared to other hilly regions like Northern Vietnam, these areas just seemed so quiet. Climbing up one of the hills, we hardly encountered anyone else over the few hours and when we saw a snake retreating into the leaves, it did suddenly spark the thought of what would we actually do if anything did happen. When Giles left me on my own while he went off to take photos, he seemed to take forever and I had visions of having to contact Laos Mountain Rescue or something. I repeatedly shouted for him but to no response – and at that moment a topless guy appeared, seemingly as surprised to see me as I he. Thankfully before I had any chance to embarrass myself by asking him to help rescue my missing husband, Giles appeared from the rocks above.
The bus trip to Luang Prabang was, hands down, the most scenic road journey we’ve ever taken. You go over the mountains and through little villages where everyone seems wrapped up in thick clothes more suited to the Scandinavian winter. It was also the bumpiest bus trip we’ve had the pleasure of taking, and despite the seatbelt we both nearly fell off our seats a few times.
Arriving in Luang Prabang, we knew that our guesthouse was “across the bamboo bridge”. What we didn’t realise is that the bamboo bridge is a pedestrian bridge which is rebuilt in the dry season every year as it tends to be swept away during the rainy season. It is rebuilt and managed by the same family each year and you pay a small amount each time you cross. You have to be a little careful where you step as it didn’t seem the sturdiest of structures, and we heard a couple of creaks as we crossed with our backpacks in tow, holding on just in case.
Luang Prabang is probably the most chilled and laid back place we’ve visited so far. It is a centre for Laotian Buddhism and full of beautiful and ornate Wats and Stupas, and as a listed World Heritage town, there seems to be a lot of funding in maintaining the building around the old town and by the Mekong. In a nutshell, we loved it here.
Unlike Vang Vieng, the nightlife is more sedate (or classy for want of a better word). So skipping Beer Lao for an evening, we headed to a lovely little wine bar. We were enjoying our glasses of chilled rose when someone walked in who I recognised. “Isn’t that Ken Hom?”, I said to Giles.
And sure enough it was. When he left, I was dying to follow him to find out where he went to eat, but in the end, just ordering another carafe of wine, and enjoying the unusually classy night we were having.