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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Laos | Vientiane & Vang Vieng

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Laos brought a more laid-back feel than some of the other Southeast Asian countries we had visited. However, transportation across Laos brought lots of long bus rides; mainly because they don't have a rail system within the country. We rented a motorbike to explore Vientiane for a full day and then ventured to Vang Vieng for a few days, which has become a popular backpacking spot with river tubing. The bus ride to Luang Prabang proved to be an 'experience' as well.

Crossing Into Laos

Monday morning after going back to sleep after the hockey game in Chiang Mai, we met Alex's friend Michael for breakfast and thanked him for his 'guide services' and ran a few errands before heading to the airport. Our flight arrived in Udon Thani around 4:45, which was too late to catch the government bus across the Laos border. So instead we bought tickets on the limousine bus (just a basic mini-van) to the Friendship bridge between Thailand and Laos for 200 Baht per person. Once we arrived there we had to get a really short bus ride to go through immigration on the Laos side for 20 baht per person. It took about 15 minutes to get our visa on arrival and then we had to wait about 30+ minutes while the driver loaded up his tuk tuk to go into Vientiane (120 baht for the two of us). Many of the Lao people go across the border to Thailand to get household goods and some food items because they are cheaper on that side of the border.

By the time our tuk tuk was all loaded up we had more bags on board than people. On the tuk tuk we met an English woman who had been living here for the past eight years teaching English at an International School. She provided some great tips and information, including how the locals may try to give you back a 2,000 Kip bill instead of a 10,000 Kip bill because they almost look the same [1 USD = 8,500 Kip]. That night when we went to get dinner, it happened to us, so the tip was very useful.

Frist Impressions of Vientiane, Laos

We started off the morning in the capital city of Laos - Vientiane - by taking our motorbike across a rickety bridge to Don Chan Island, which is a strip of land in the middle of the river. The wooden bridge seemed to be composed of various random strips of wood, but the locals were going across so we figured we just do as the locals do...just at a slower pace. There was a definite difference in lifestyles from the mainland, with the quaint village people going about their daily lives and the more up-paced city people of Vientiane. However, up-paced in Laos is still relatively laid back compared to some of the other countries we have been. The people here are pretty laid back in general, and in most instances you have to approach a tuk-tuk driver for a ride, rather than the driver heckling you from across the street.

Pha That Luang

We also visited Pha That Luang, which is the national monument for Laos. There were many important public events and announcements made here, and is still a main area for Lao people to come. The golden Buddhist stupa was first constructed in the 3rd century and endured several reconstructions throughout the following centuries. The wat was originally in Luang Prabang, but was moved to Vientiane by the king in the 16th Century. There was also a Buddhist temple with various ornate paintings on the ceilings within the same grounds as Pha That Luang.

Army National History Museum

In the afternoon, we meant to go to the National History Museum, but ended up going to the 'Army National History Museum' by mistake. However, the information was in basic English, so we could read most of the photographed exhibits and timeline of the army events from WWI to present. It was especially interesting to read about the conflict with the US forces from 1956 to 1965 and how most of the countries surrounding Vietnam got involved in the 'War Against the American Imperialists' (a.k.a. Vietnam War), because of the North Vietnamese trying to move west into Cambodia and Laos. However, the people here are still so kind to foreigners, even though they experienced a lot of damage from the US bombs that were dropped here.

We took the motorbike for an afternoon ride to some areas outside of town that were only dirt roads. The large trucks and motorbikes going tended to kick up quite a bit of dust, but they tried to control it by wetting down the roads with some water. We found some children playing in an irrigation canal, which looked so refreshing because of the hot and humid conditions.

That evening we found a traditional Chinese restaurant (it seems there are many Chinese people living here) and Alex found some of his favorite Chinese dishes from Shijiazhuang -- the best part was that it tasted almost exactly like we remembered!

Vang Vieng (2 days)

We took the local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, and as always, the bus ride was an experience in itself. Ten minutes after loading our bus at the city bus station, our bus pulled over on the side of the road and we loaded onto another bus for the rest of the journey. Then one of the toilet stops we made was out in the middle of nowhere and we used the 'natural toilet'; but at least it was free of charge.

Vang Vieng is a town on the way to Luang Prabang and has grown to be quite the tourist attraction with its floating down the river. It also has some beautiful scenery in the area with many limestone mountains near the river (which we explored the next morning on motorbike).

When we arrived we found a hostel (Thavisout Resort) which consisted of several bungalow cabins. However, the best part was the direct view over the river from their restaurant. (They even served museli, fruit and yogurt for breakfast, which I was excited about.)

River Tubing Experience

Our first afternoon we decided to do the river tubing trip and went to the company to rent our tubes for 55,000 Kip each (1 USD=8,500 Kip). They took us to a point up the Nam Song river and the tuk tuk dropped us off there. Immediately, there were 4 to 5 riverside bars that try to pull you into their bar by throwing out a string with a water bottle attached and then reel you in. Each of the bars has music playing and either a swing, zipline or slide. As you travel further down the river there are about 5 to 7 more bars, each one trying to entice you to come into their bar.

We did a swing at the Jungle Bar, but as Alex fell in he hit his face a certain way so that the top of his inside lip started to bleed. The bleeding was short lived, but was re-injured later down the river when he went off of a big slide and smashed into the water. In fact, with that particular injury he chipped one of his bottom teeth as well. He definitely earned some battle wounds from that river! However, overall the trip was a lot of fun and we met a few other travelers. It is crazy how many people go on this tubing trip though -- probably around 200 per day. The tubing company must be making fortune! [However, since we visited in 2010 there has been pressure from foreign governments to improve the safety of tourists river tubing. Today there aren't the crazy swings or slides and not as many bars can be open at once.] After the sun went behind the mountains it was a little cool floating down the cold river water, so we climbed out only about 1 km from where we started and grabbed a tuk tuk back to the tube rental company.

River Tubing - Round 2

The next day we were a little sore so we slept in. We thought we would go check out this Blue Lagoon, but when we got there it was almost a swamp and the water wasn't flowing so we didn't think that would be the best place to go swimming. Instead we headed back for round 2 of the river tubing. However, this time it was a much tamer trip down the river and we just stopped at one place for a Pepsi and a few trips down their slide. We actually made it all the way back to town as well with some extra paddling with our sandals on our hands for a flipper-type effect. The river is pretty low at this time of the year, so there were some areas where it was pretty shallow and the water didn't flow as quickly. We even tubed right by a herd of water buffalo bathing in the river.

Traditional Lao Massage

In the evening, we decided to get a traditional Lao massage because of the pain we had put our bodies through for the past couple of days. A traditional Lao massage uses the energy point throughout your body to create a soothing effect, it also seemed to have a lot of stretching components, instead of the traditional rubbing. The massage was very nice and was only 35,000 kip for a full body for an hour. They used a cream that acted and smelled like icy-hot, which I'm sure our muscles appreciated.

Bus to Luang Prabang

The next leg of our trip to Luang Prabang would be on a very winding road and would take about 6-8 hours (if the bus didn't break down). So we thought we would hedge our bets and book through our hostel for the supposed AC bus. However, they took us on the tuk tuk to the town bus station and we loaded the local bus, which was NOT air conditioned. (Unless you count natural air flow as AC.) After we arrived we had to wait about 45 minutes for another bus to arrive with additional foreigners that were going to be taking the bus to Luang Prabang.

We stopped at a few places along the way, including some hillside villages. We hypothesize that they make most of their money from the bus travelers who stop to go to the bathroom (2000 Kip for basically a hole) and for snack food. The roads were winding and bumpy and the sides of the road were dirt; with the windows open the dirt started to cover us inside the bus. However, we made it in one piece without any breakdowns by about 5:30-6:00 that evening and were able to find a hostel for 70,000 Kip per night. After some showers we went to a riverside restaurant and tried some of the local specialties including pumpkin soup in coconut milk and Luang Prabang Mixed Stew with sticky rice. The stew was a bit spicy, but the pumpkin soup was made with green pumpkins and was more accustomed for our North American taste buds.

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