Details of Life on the Road: Street eats, cheap sleeps, budget travel experiences

Legendary Laos

Late Thoughts On Laos


P1030185Photo: Taken near Konglor village

Sleepy, mystical, brilliantly green. It’s 7:06am on November 16th, 2014, and I’m currently on a day bus from Savannakhet to Pakse, Laos, so I have some time to write. Well, the verdict is in and I like Laos – a lot. From the golden temples in Luang Prabang, to the endless party life in Vang Vieng; from lively (which may be a stretch) Vientiane, to laid back Mekong river towns like Savannakhet; from the otherworldly karst formations to ever-changing green landscapes that shapes Laos; from modest rural traditional housing to decaying colonial architecture to modernity.

I first arrived in Laos after a treacherous 29 hour bus journey from Sapa, Vietnam. It was, hands down, the worst bus journey I’ve ever been on, but we’ll leave that story for another time. I arrived in Luang Prabang in the early hours of November 2nd, happy to be alive, and with good company. I was traveling with a Matan and Carine from Israel, Luke from England, and Yung from Malaysia, all who have since went their own ways. The hostel owner kindly showed us to our room after being awoken at 1:00am. My likeness for the Laotian people only grew over the next days. Two days later at the hostel, the owner announced he was having a party. Free noodles – and snake whiskey if you’re adventurous – for everyone in celebration of the owners birthday. I was grateful of such generosity. The owner also woke at 5:00am in order to lead us to the alms giving, as well as to show us around the morning market, and to have breakfast with us.P1020838Photo: Temple in Luang Prabang

It was nice traveling with a group of others. I never really had to do much research or make any plans, I just went with the flow and everything worked out. In Luang Prabang, I enjoyed staring at 33 unesco-protected golden temples, glimmering in a sun-lit golden-yellow. It was a nice city to walk around – years of tourism had shaped it into a lovely, little, clean-ish, quaint city. Often the joys of experiencing something new, such as experiencing a new city in Laos, are enhanced due the presence of sincere travel companions. Prior to the trip I had searched for a travel companion, not for the whole duration of my travels but for spurts. I was very familiar with solo travel, but perhaps I was searching for a partner out of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of the gloomy loneliness which I knew all too well, but which I also knew how to prevent. But, shortly after starting my trip and traveling alone again, I knew my initial fears were silly; I remembered that traveling solo is wonderfully rewarding and enlightening. However, traveling with company is also a rewarding experience, to which solo travel is difficult to compare. I felt instantly accepted in my new group of friends, despite my prominent weirdness (but that’s what travel is about). Friendships grow more quickly on the road than they do at home – maybe it’s due to spending nearly 24 hours out of a day with the same individuals. Playful banter soon arises, and personal stories are exchanged. Again, a story for another time, but what I want to convey is: it was nice to wake up not alone. Although It was just me in my bed, I was far from alone. And, don’t get me wrong, I often long for solitude, but I welcome the joys of genuine company and new friendships and experiences.

P1020882Photo: Kuang Si Waterfalls

I spent four nights in LP. On the second day we visited the alluring Kuang Si waterfalls, a series of spectacularly blue swimming holes, one leading into the other, given birth to by the main waterfall. There’s a nice hike, too, which goes up and around the main waterfall. On the final day in LP, we took part in witnessing LP’s quintessential tourist activity, watching the alms giving. Every morning, Buddhist monks leave their temples and monasteries to roam the city and accept offerings of food and prayer. It’s a beautiful sight to witness the monks walking up the streets sporting their orange cloaks and receiving food under an awaking sky at 6:00am. Although I followed etiquette, I still felt as though I was trespassing, as though I was intruding. Basically, I was. Every morning, of every day, the monks have to tolerate cameras being stuck in their faces, flashes going off in their eyes, and the eyes of hundreds of faces gawking at them. I’m not saying I’m any better, nor am I trying to be a hypocrite. It was a visually pleasing experience, a traditionally significant act.

P1030045Photo: Alms giving in Luang Prabang

Food was aplenty in LP. There were banana roti and baguette vendors on every corner. I was fairly impressed with the quality of food in Laos, despite what I’ve heard from other travelers. Vegetarian food was easy to find, and was not at all bland. There was a great mix of western food and Laotian food. As much as I can help, I avoid Western restaurants like the plague. I’m not in Laos to eat spaghetti. I understand how home food/Western food can be comforting, but I pity the traveler who seeks out a burger in the presence of local fare. That being said, I may be stepping on my own feet. Due to the tourist market in LP, there are baguette sandwich stands everywhere and sometimes, rather than searching out a cheap breakfast or lunch, it’s easier to haggle for a cheap sandwich and fruit smoothie. The difference is ease rather than necessity and want. LP seemed to have a diverse array of vegetarian street food and so I would constantly be snacking. The night market offered gigantic, primarily vegetarian buffets for less than $2.00USD which I indulged in more than once. I also had the best noodle soup of my trip in LP, and that’s saying something after all of the pho I’ve eaten in Vietnam.

P1020969Photo: Night food market in Luang Prabang

After Luang Prabang, we all ventured to Vang Vieng, the party capital of Laos. I’m not too familiar with its history, but I believe that the party scene has significantly subsided due to a few deaths back in the early 2010’s. Vang Vieng’s main attraction is tubing on a local river. The river was once littered with bars which you would stop at along the tubing ride. Each bar would give you free shots, and drinks were far from expensive – which is still the case. There used to be water slides, rope swings, short zip lines, and other activities all which are now history. Tubing is still high in demand, but now there are more rules in place, and there are only 3 or 4 bars along the 1.5 hour tubing adventure. VV now offers many other activities such as, hot air ballooning, ATVing, kayaking, hiking, and more. Other than tubing, we rented mountain bikes and headed to the nearby Blue Lagoon. It was a beautiful, yes you guessed it, blue lagoon. One tree hung above the lagoon which allowed travelers to jump and swing off of it. Nearby the lagoon were many caves. We ventured to one of them which required headlamps. Watch out for the giant spiders! Bicycling is one of my favorite things to do in Canada, and it’s equally as enjoyable in SEAsia. Biking through rural villages and though stunning scenery won’t get old.

P1030085Photo: Room in Vang Vieng – one of the few photos from my time there.

The 5 of us had our own room in VV, as we did in LP, which was comfortable. I also stayed four nights in VV. On our second day we participated in the Laos tubing phenomenon and hit the river. Before even going on the water the first bar has the music blasting, the volley ball court is full, people are dancing, and shot glasses are being emptied. If you have a free shot you’ll get a small bracelet. It’s easy to see the tubing enthusiasts, and to recognize those who have been there for a while – which is many – for they will have an arm full of the small fabric bracelets. I actually only had one shot during the day. I’m not 20 anymore, and I didn’t want to drink too much Lao whiskey in the scorching sun. However, I did purchase a beer at every bar. The first three bars were only minutes apart. You start tubing downstream amid a swarm of inflated tire tubes, and soon dock in order to enter the bar. Music is pumping, people are dancing, and the party has started at 1:00pm. After you’ve had your fill of the bars, it’s time to float on home under the setting sun. Then the real party starts. Even though VV has went though considerable efforts in order to change its appearance, and reputation, from party town to family orientated town – which has to some extent been successful – the party continues. We found out about a bar that gives away free whiskey mixed drinks between 9:00pm and 10:00pm, no catches, no questions asked. After an hour or so there, we would move on to another bar which gave out two free drinks. After that, if you felt like it, you could head on out to one of the late night clubs. Unlike other party towns, this one didn’t break your wallet. After 4 nights of this, my body had had enough and I needed a well deserved break. Most of the younger travelers were fine, but I just wasn’t used to it and needed some time to relax and recover. Although VV isn’t really my scene, I had an absolute blast there and had a few very memorable experiences.

lukemevangPhoto: Taking a break from tubing in Vang Vieng. Credit to Luke Pearson for the photo.

Vientiane. The party is over, time to move on. The end (of this particular chapter) is nigh – my recent travel friends start to disperse. Matan decided to stay on in VV for a couple extra days. The next day in Vientiane Yung caught an afternoon bus to Chiang Mai. The day after that Luke and Carine both caught buses to Thailand, resulting in everyone going their separate ways. I was, once again, left to my own devices. Prior to all of this happening, I finally got to play Ultimate Frisbee in Asia! I, unfortunately, didn’t get to “pick up” (play ultimate frisbee) in Vietnam, and so I was really glad to play in Laos. Props to Lonely Planet for putting “Ultimate Frisbee” as one of their activities in their 2014 Laos edition. Other than that, good food was eaten, a sunset was watched, a bicycle was ridden, and I knew I must once again move on.

I finally had to do some extensive research on Laos and try to figure out where I should go next and what I should do. Thanks to word of mouth and to research guides, I chose to go to Thakhaek. I had been hearing about the legendary “loop” which starts and ends in Thakhaek so I decided to scope it out. I met some people on the bus journey from Vientiane to Thakhaek and roomed up with Igor from Belgium once we arrived in Thakhaek. It seemed that the people who were in Thakhaek were only there for one reason, to moto-journey the loop. The next day I quickly learned how to ride a semi-automatic motorbike and we were off. Eight of us later split into two groups. I traveled with Laurence from Quebec, and Igor. The loop is a 500km or so circuit that goes through many different and diverse landscapes in rural Laos. There are many caves and some waterfalls on the route, but the main attraction is the Tham Kong Lo Cave, a 7.5km cave that is only accessible by boat. The cave is home to bats and allegedly to 25cm spiders! We didn’t see any spiders, though. The cave was nice, but even with head-lamps it was difficult to see the sheer size of it. I appreciated its eeriness, though.

P1030147

Photo: Dead trees on flooded land

The loop showcased the most impressive and beautiful scenery I think I’ve ever seen. I just can’t describe how truly beautiful and diverse it was. Sadly, I’m still learning one lesson: when I see a photo that seems too good to be true, I must take the photo, rather than riding past and hoping I’ll see a similar one at a later time. This happens so much, and it saddens me. The first day of riding consisted of decent – by Laos standards – roads, and low laying forest with karst formations bursting out of them. We stayed the first night at Sabaidee Guesthouse, which was well setup to host travelers. The owner was a lively, smiley man who tried his best to please you – thanks for the dark Lao-Lao whiskey shot. I met a few other memorable people at the guesthouse who I bumped into a few times during the loop. And, for the second time ever, I played petanque, a game similar to lawn bowling and bocce ball, brought to Laos by the French during colonial times. I played an experienced Belgian, and I got lucky one of the games.

The second day of the loop was equally or more impressive, although the driving was worse. We spent a couple of hours driving on a dirt road, one that hadn’t seen rain in a while and so we were riding though an endless plume of dust. Honestly, I’ve never been that dusty in my life, but it was all fun and seemed to be a puzzle piece, perfectly fitting into the whole experience. Eco-power dams are being built in many places in Laos, and the loop is no exception. We passed through a “man made” lake early on during our second day. Man made means flooded, for lack of better terms. Beautifully eerie, yet pitifully ugly at the same time, much of the lowland forests have been flooded and turned into lakes which are coated in lifeless trees. We finished off the second day by driving a 40km paved road, passing through friendly villages to find accommodation close to the cave.

P1030200Photo: View in Konglor village

Many travelers take 4 days to complete the loop, and indeed, the rest of people we initially left with did just so. However, we felt 3 days were sufficient and decided to head home early on the third day. I rode the bike with a sense of freedom that is difficult to parallel. The wind strong against my face, the relentless sun burning my body as I rode though the jungle-like terrain, up and down the paved switchbacks. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen, and the sky was the bluest of blues. Children smiled and waved as we drove past, sadly, to not stop or drive back. Seas of green on both sides of me, the trees seemed to wave, and to smile back to me as the wind contorted their bodies, which made this green sea awaken. I was in complete paradise, except for the fact that my ass felt like it was about to dissolve. We finished the third day with a 2 hour ride back to Thakhaek on the main highway. There was only one hiccup: about 20km from Thakhaek we were overtaken by a tuk tuk driver, who then stupidly put on the brakes which in return made us put on the brakes – over the handlebars went Igor, but no worries, he is safe and sound and practically unscathed

P1030233Photo: Igor, Laurence, and I just after finishing the loop.

This – and all the other juicy details that I’ve left out, as well as the experiences and images that I’m incapable of describing – is Laos. I stayed one more night in Thakhaek, and recently stayed one night in Savannakhet. On the way back to the hostel in Savannakhet, Igor and I were invited to sit down with a local family and we were then fed numerous cups of beer. Although limited English was spoken, smiles were shared, beards were touched, and great times were had by all. We soon realized that the beer would not stop being served so we kindly excused ourselves and went back to the hostel Now I’m off to Pakse where another loop, this time through the Bolaven Plateau, awaits. To conclude, Laos has been a land of humble smiles on modest faces. The green seems to roll on, and on, and on, just as I will keep moving on.

One Response to “Legendary Laos”

  1. Bob says:

    Mastering the typographic pen, Evan. Keep the prose coming!

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