I left the land of 7-11, Burger King and McDonald’s, and crossed the border by boat to Huay Xai, Laos. Border crossings in Southeast Asia can range from completely painless to an absolute nightmare. This one was more a nightmare than anything else. The whole process took three hours, during which I experienced my worst two minutes on this trip so far (see the Log of Dramatic Incidents below). It was not a particularly good introduction to Laos, but things did get much better!
The first thing I did was a homestay in a village near Luang Namtha. It was an incredibly neat experience. In groups of five, we ate dinner with families while sitting cross legged on the floor. We got to bathe in the river Lao-style wearing only a sarong. We had a big bonfire and sang songs with the kids. We slept on the floor of the family homes under mosquito nets. My best sleep yet, oddly enough!
The roads in Northern Laos are unbelievably windy and bumpy, and every time the bus went up a hill, the AC had to be turned off. As such, the drive to Nong Khiaw was incredibly difficult for me, and I have never been so relieved to arrive anywhere. I was rewarded by the opportunity to go on a fishing trip with some Lao guides. We tubed a short way down the river and then spent the evening trying to catch fish by throwing a net. I was unsuccessful, but I did enjoy an amazing dinner of fresh fish cooked over a campfire on the beach. Yum!
I spent four amazing nights in Luang Prabang. The city is incredibly beautiful, and very easy to navigate. The Kuang Si waterfall nearby is the most unbelievable blue colour. I got to jump off the waterfall, and swing on a rope into the water. So awesome! I discovered Nanaimo bars (pronounced Nana-Imo by the lady at the cash!) at a local bakery. I bought my first pair of temple pants at the night market (I absolutely cannot resist seizing the opportunity to walk around in what are basically pyjamas!). I climbed up to the temple on the hill to watch the sunset. I got up early to watch hundreds of monks walk down the street to collect their food for the day, and to watch tourists behave abominably by shoving their cameras into the monks’ faces as the monks tried to get by.
In Vang Vieng, I did the requisite tubing. It is not the insane party it once was, but it’s still a lot of fun to float down a river while playing games and chatting with other backpackers. Occasionally, the current picks up and you get spun around while trying desperately to avoid hitting rocks. There were two bars open where you could get refreshed, and there was also people selling Beerlao on the side of the river. They removed all the rope swings and ziplines (the water was too shallow anyway), so it’s a lot safer. I had a blast, and I was not even overly disturbed when a giant green watersnake slithered by. I have come a long way with that particular fear!
In Vientiane, we visited a museum dedicated to people who have been maimed or killed by unexploded ordnances in Laos. I learned that people are dying to this day from picking up stray bombs. The museum was very moving, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Laos.
I went “camping” in Tad Leuk National Park, near Vientiane. We slept inside on the floor of the visitor’s centre, which was fine by me! There were monkeys in the forest, and at one point, one of them crawled through the hole in the ceiling and ran through the visitor’s centre. Luckily, there was hardly anyone inside at the time. I can only imagine what would have happened if the monkey had appeared in the middle of the night!
One of the best places that I visited in Laos was the Kong Lor cave, a gigantic 7 km-long cave that is also 100 m-wide at some spots. The perfect cave if you are claustrophobic!
We visited an actual working market (as opposed to a more tourist-y market) in Thakhek. They were selling all sorts of food, including bats and jungle cats! The smells were quite incredible, and there was so much to take in at once. I loved it!
On the way to our second homestay, we stopped at a sacred turtle lake. You got to feed the turtles candies and listen to kids sing a traditional song to summon them. We also visited a sacred library with ancient Buddhist scriptures where we had to get dressed up before going in. The homestay was in a monkey forest and we got to feed the hundreds of monkeys bananas. Wicked fun!
I thought that I had seen some of the best waterfalls already, but I was blown away by the waterfall near Pakse. It was unbelievably high, and you could swim right under it in the fresh, clear water. Such an amazing experience after yet another long, hot drive.
We visited Wat Phu, which predates Angkor Wat, but I wish we hadn’t. There had just been a festival, and you could not walk even one step anywhere on the site without stepping in garbage. It was so hot, and so disgusting. I have not got used to the garbage in Southeast Asia, and I probably never will.
The weather in Don Det, in the four thousand islands, was the hottest that I have ever experienced. There was nothing I felt like doing other than lounging around in the water all day. I went tubing around the island with a group of five Parisians who were loads of fun. I always appreciate when a group of travellers invites me to join their group. Shared experiences are always better!
Log of Dramatic Incidents
February 13, 2013: Nightmare at the Laos border. Two minutes from hell. Paid 5 baht to use a squat toilet in appalling condition at a restaurant, slammed my head on the doorway of the restaurant, then walked across the crowded border area with my skirt tucked in my undies.
February 14, 2013: Road from Luang Namtha to Nong Khiaw. Lost count of the number of times I braced myself for potential impact after witnessing the outrageous stunts pulled by convoys of Chinese tourists in fancy cars as they raced around corners. Yikes!
February 19, 2013. So excited for tubing in Vang Vieng! Ran around the guest house barefoot after slathering on sunscreen. Slipped and fell up the stairs, slamming both my shins. Results are as pictured:
February 22, 2013: Food poisoning, Southeast Asia-style. Spent FIVE HOURS sharing intimate moments with a toilet bowl. I lost count at eight. Felt miserable for 24 hours in total. It was unbelievably horrible and violent. Not recommended at all.