Laos is the second country in my southeast Asia backpacking loop. Time spent at Laos, although short was a welcome change after Thailand. We visited Vientiane which was true to its boast of a French colonial architecture and Luang Prabang was as attractive as its name.
Vientiane: 2 days and 1 night
Stayed at : Dream home hostel 1, Sihome road, Vientiane
Short review : Located at a walk-able distance from the Mekong river and the night market by it. Lively and a big hostel, filled with travelers. Clean beds and sheets in the dorms, common toilets were average.
One breakfast order was included in the room rent. There is an in-house restaurant, I would recommend exploring the other restaurants down the road which serve local food.
Luang Prabang: 3 days and 2 nights
Stayed at : Kounsavan Guest house, Luang Prabang
Short review : Located at a walking distance to the market and the food street. Mosquito menace, in the common area, rooms were free from it. Free coffee and tea 24×7, one breakfast order was included in the room rent. A/C is turned on only from 8 pm to 10 am.
Travelers: Two female backpackers
My long narrative (For important information, please scroll down)
We flew in from Bangkok to Udon Thani and then a coach to the border via Thai Lao Friendship bridge, using the ‘Nok Air Fly n ride‘ option. The flight ticket was a steal at 1500 baht including 15 kilo check-in baggage per person and a small free snack and free water on board! At the border we submitted our exit cards and got our exit stamps on the passport in less than 10 minutes. We then had to take a public bus on our own for 15 baht a ticket (Nok Air does not include this). It was a short bus ride on the long (more than 1 kilometer) Thai-Laos friendship bridge. At the Laos border we had to wait for about 30 minutes sporting the yellow Nok Air stickers on our t-shirts for the other Nok Air travelers to get their visa on arrival. We had got the visa beforehand to avoid any delays at the border, but we ended up waiting for the rest anyways. There were about 6 of us in total, Nok Air had arranged a 9 seater vehicle which was to drop us off at the Nok Air office from where our hostel was about 10 to 15 minutes walk. But our driver was kind enough to drop us off at our hostel. He was the face of Laos for us and formed our first impression of the locals, he sealed it at : ‘Kind and welcoming, Laos locals’ 🙂
We checked into Dream home hostel 1 by afternoon. Painted walls and traveler crowd making small talks in groups filled the place up. Next, we entered the dorm and as usual some folks were sleeping in the dorm (due to backpack travel schedules). We had to enter without making any noise, then lock our stuff under the bed and then tip toe out of the dorm. This had become a task in every hostel and the usually noisy me, was learning how to walk without thumping the entire floor and also to avoid digging into the backpack. There wasn’t much to dig though, because I was traveling light (less than 7 kilos).
Our first important task was currency exchange. After that we had lunch at the hostel and decided that we should have all other meals outside. We then headed out for a grocery store stroll. This was my favorite to-do in any new place. The first few hours were ‘getting used to time’ for the Laos currency -Kips. Each time I got back change I would take a few minutes to get into the Kips mode and always managed to earn an annoyed look from the tenders. I checked the bakery section which was my usual habit, because I liked breads and cakes and it was easiest to carry when traveling. I was taking a stock for the bus travel to LP. Unlike Thailand, Laos does not have a good choice in bakery food and there are no 7-11 stores. Next main task was to find a good deal for the bus tickets to LP for the second night. After checking with various agents, found one who promised confirmed seat numbers. I rechecked if he will write seat numbers on the ticket ( I wanted front seats to avoid a bumpy ride), he said that he would. But this was not matching with what I had read in blogs and with what other agents had said. And its true that you cannot get confirmed seats in any of the Laos bus travels. You have to go early and catch whatever is available or allocated to you after you reach the stand, or be a local to have a deal with the driver. Probably he was just trying to sell.
The English-speaking receptionist at our hostel was a friendly chatter box with all the travelers, that’s how she must have picked her conversational English. And she was also a good salesperson! She managed to convince me that the bus company they have tied up was newer and most comfortable one. She gave us a little discount but did not lower it to the deal we had found elsewhere, but we finally booked with her anyways, because we already trusted and liked Laos locals. Plus it was a relief to talk to be able to talk and understand her because she spoke English!
Later we headed to the Mekong river front to watch sunset, which was a 15 minutes walk from our hostel. We stood on the paved and tiled floor where the night market was setup, watching the Mekong. It was dry due to summer, we could see land and water was only at the far end of the horizon.
We then started strolling into the market. This night market was longer and wider compared to the Thai ones. Each vendor had set up shop under a huge bright orange parasol in two parallel lines. There was enough space to walk and not step over other shoppers. Retail shops, local arts, craft work and trinkets with orange flood lights all over them was a very colorful and lively sight. One one side of the market was the dried up Mekong and on the other side there were food vendors ranging from push carts, to food trucks and fine dine shops. We strolled around until our legs ached and finally settled for dinner at a food truck.
The food truck was being managed by a family of 3 (so I assume). One was taking orders from the tables setup on the pavement and the other two were cooking inside the truck while taking take away orders. While I waited for my order to arrive, I watched the man and the woman inside the truck toss noodles and close in on orders. Then after a while, there was only one person in the truck. The guy was having his dinner at a table next to ours. And then the other two took turns. Orders were not delayed, including my ad-hoc requests for water, sauce, salt, pepper, tissues at different times. Phew! I plea, not guilty, I genuinely needed those things. This was the most crowded and happening joint on the entire street. While one of them had food the other two managed his/her role in addition to their own. Now this was a true war room, no line of managers asking for status reporting and process improvements. It was just the real food artists at work, they took care of their own hunger and also took care of all their customers, efficiently!
We wandered back into the market, going by the saying, after dinner walk a mile. Oh wait, is it after supper or after dinner? Anyways, we walked until our legs finally gave up and we had to head back to the hostel. We were back inside the dorm around 10 pm, lights were off and people had climbed into their beds with mobile lights lighting up strange faces. Again did the tip toeing act, in and out of the dorm room couple of times until I was ready to sleep. Then it was my turn to throw mobile light on to my pretty face. Wrote my expenses down and before I could write my travel journal I fell asleep. Through out the night someone or the other got in or out of the dorm. I tossed around all night without a wink of sleep. Well, owl-ing all night was the perk of being in a 16 bed dorm! And I of course used it as an excuse for skipping the planned morning run.
We checked out late in the morning and decided to walk around local until our pick up for the LP (Luang Prabang) bus.
During lunch, we tried the raw Papaya salad for the first time, (in our trip so far), it was heavenly! A combination of sweet, sour, super spicy, tangy, crunchy and tasty beyond my taste bud’s imagination! And then I asked for fried rice with less oil. 2 or 3 waitresses came to our table to understand my ask. And finally I got a fried rice without oil, burnt egg and rice and some powder sprinkled all over. I was surprised, it did not taste all that bad though. And am sure the cook would have been very annoyed with this insane no-oil ask!
After the local lunch we settled down at a cafe that we had marked previous night. We had cold coffee at the 3rd floor of the Amazon cafe, facing the dried up Mekong. We got an aerial view of the entire Mekong market and saw the market in the making. From folks arranging their product display to the orange Parasols coming up. And then people bustling in slowly and adding more life and energy to the place.
I was lost observing, people and assuming and making up stories behind their expressions or lack of expressions! We also had our typical cafe, deep conversations about life, the universe and beyond! Something which we did throughout the trip in installments. With all this, hours just flew by.
We went back to the hostel to spend the remaining hour waiting for our pick up to the bus station. While we waited at the reception area, viewing the wall sketches, our receptionist friend told us that it was snowing in Sapa! That was our next stop after LP. Apparently she was from Vietnam and not a local. She did not like the mosquito menace in Lao and she missed the Vietnam weather. We checked later, on the internet, it wasn’t snowing but was surely very cold in Sapa. We were alarmed because our backpack wardrobe was not at all ready for low temperatures. We decided to layer every single piece of clothing and marked the case closed.
We got picked up by a cab to take us to the bus stand. This was a custom common to Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. The bus companies arranged for a pick from all hostels in the city to take passengers to the bus station, 1 to 2 hours prior to the departure. This was a luxury with a trade-off, of many hours of wait time due to early arrivals at the bus station.
Our sleeper bus left on time, we were asked to remove footwear and carry it inside in plastic bags. This was a nice custom and the same was followed in Vietnam and Cambodia as well. We got assigned (after requesting), the front row sleepers. The sleeper seats reclined 80 degrees, with a cover at the feet. Rugs were provided. I felt like I was sleeping in a toy house bed. And so I enjoyed this bus ride, in spite of lack of leg room or space to toss around.
We reached LP in the morning and were early for our check in. After few hours of settling in at the common area, we went walking around the place. We came across the post office which was closed and would open at 6 pm! Now how weird is that? Probably it was targeted at travelers. We exchanged currency for the rest of the trip and continued sauntering.We then did our usual first task, booking tickets to next location. In and out of shops checking the rates and finally booked the cheapest bus to Dien Bien Phu which was a 12 hours away, by road.
Walking the streets of Luang Prabang was refreshing. Wide and clean streets, lined with few trees painted pink (flowers in full bloom). And adding to its grandeur are the temples and the palace converted museum. And not to forget all the fancy cafes to watch these views from.
We had lunch at a colorful food court with local vendors. I was very excited to see Baguette sandwiches on the menu. I loved Baguette bread and it reminded me of my meals in Paris! I had a mouth-watering hot chicken sandwich. And from here on, at every given chance, I had baguette bread. This bread was very much local to Laos and Vietnam, a gift from french colonialism. It was fresh and tastier than what we get in India. Later on in the trip, I learnt from a French lady that the Baguette was not as good or even close to what they get in France. Well, it may have picked the local flavors of Laos. Just like the French toast we make in India which doesn’t seem like anything from France anymore! Nevertheless the taste of these baguette excited me all the same due to my lack of characteristic recognition.
Post lunch we went back to the hostel to check-in. There were package tours (tuk-tuks) ready to leave for Kuang Si falls. Based on the past experience of the dry waterfalls at Erawan (Kanchanaburi), we decided to skip the falls because it was still summer. The local tuk-tuk guy claimed that there was water and in fact said that he would return the entire amount if the falls wasn’t a good sight. We did not heed to any of his sales tactics and decided to stay low for the day and regain our sapped energies from the travel.
In the evening we headed out again and went to the local walk-able temples and museums and then strolled around watching the market being setup. Visiting the night market was becoming a custom now for every new place we visited. And I love it each and every time, just as much. Colorful clothes, trinkets, painting and craft works were always a great sight and the countless people brought life to the markets. It was my second best lively pass time, first being the local street food. There were no local street food vendors in the main street, so for dinner I happily had the Baguette sandwich from the lunch time vendor again. It was just the second visit, I went back looking for her and she also greeted me singing Sabadee (means Hello), like we knew each other from years! She asked me if I was Namaste (a greeting in Hindi).
‘You Namaste??’, she asked, pointing a finger to an imaginary Bindi on her forehead and bringing her palms together. Am a slow processor, so my friend answered, Yes, we are Namaste! How did you guess? She said ‘I have Namaste friend, so I know. See there!’ And she pointed to a man sitting at her table. He wore an Italian hat, an Indian gamcha (a small piece of cloth around the neck) and an American smile. He was sitting with a guy from Netherlands. Both of them introduced themselves and we sat down for a conversation. We exchanged the holiday duration and then livelihood details. The guy from Netherlands casually said that he spent time in Jail and then he was backpacking for 6 months and after that he would go back and look for a job. He said that he refused to serve in the Army and hence the time in jail. I am not sure if he was sober, but I was shocked that the conscription is still enforced in Netherlands even in year 2016!!! Stopping myself from giving too much of a dramatic reaction, we started talking casually with Mr. Namaste about India. The Netherlands guy left, as he had to head out elsewhere. We continued talking about India in Mr Namaste’s era to current times, from small talks, to travel tips, to history, to politics and to everything under the sun. Mr Namaste, true to his looks was a very well-traveled old chap and belonged to any place he wished. We spoke for several hours until our Lao baguette lady had to close shop. No selfies, no exchange of Facebook ids or the like. We bid a goodbye, from a real conversation and a happy time. Back at the hostel at midnight, we called it a day.
We had an early start the next day to get to the Pak Ou caves. Equipped with information from Mr. Namaste we went all set to bargain for a good deal. But we just missed the morning boat to Pak Ou. Disappointed we walked along the entire stretch of the road watching joggers and waiting for boat men to ask us for a ride. But there was no one. Finally we took a tuk tuk to the closest point across the Pak Ou caves and then crossed over in a small boat.
Pak Ou cave has a lower cave and an upper cave. The lower cave had 2500 odd Buddha statues of all sizes scattered all over. While this wasn’t exciting, I enjoyed my time taking some macro photography of the statues with Candles in the foreground. There were people offering incense sticks and flowers to few centrally placed Buddha idols. We tried asking the lady who was selling the incense sticks to explain this tradition. But she wasn’t able to understand us and vice versa. So we watched her, happily taking back the stuff that she sold, behind a small table and fixing new incense sticks for resale.
The upper cave was a 10 minutes walk up a steep stairway, it was a darker cave and had bigger Budha idols. After spending some time in the cave, we headed back to the boat and crossed over to get to the tuk-tuk and then back to Luang Prabang. We walked by the Mekong river for a couple of hours to get enough of its views and then we watched another sunset, a crimson sky over its orange reflection on the Mekong river. We walked back through the market and this time we realized that the food market was on a side road. The food was colorfully arranged, and the place was crowded. It was just 15000 Kip for a full huge bowl of any combination. You get to choose any or all of the dishes, as long as you can take it in one serving. I took everything that looked nice, and stopped when the bowl could not handle it anymore. Got it sautéed, because I like hot food. Remember the rule? If you want to eat street food, have hot food to avoid food poisoning. I then asked for a spoon or fork. I was given chopsticks, I repeated spoon with a hand sign drawing an imaginary spoon from the bowl to my mouth. And in response I just got a plain No! The food looked so scrumptious from the colorful arrangement and now it was in my hand, hot and ready to be had, but no spoon! I felt bad that I probably won’t be able to enjoy my food. My hunger told me that it’s the need of the hour to each with chopsticks. Now that I think of it, am not sure why I did not consider eating with my hand (Indian style). Nevertheless, I finished an entire meal with chopsticks! I had a pair of chopsticks at home for 4 years and I must have tried once or twice and failed and never picked it up again to practice. And here I had an entire meal with chopsticks! I enjoyed the delicious food to the last morsel and left a clean bowl. I left the food street, with a happy palate, ready to burst, overflowing tummy and an accomplished mind rejoicing my new chopstick skill! From here we went to a so-called happening pub which ended up being a backpacker’s abode. It was typical dull, small talk partly place like any other city. We did not have to come across the border to be at parties!!! So we went back to the local market and sauntered around until sleep time.
Next day we started early to leave to Dien Bien Phu. On our way to the bus station, we got to witness a ritual where people donate food to Buddhist monks. We had earlier seen this only in Laos post cards. This charity ritual was followed in the wee hours of morning each day. Monks clad in maroon robes walk in a line and follow the same path everyday, while vendors line up on the sides of these streets, with baskets of grains. People buy grains from these vendors and then donate it to the monks.
When we reached the bus station, we saw a few more monks and food vendors who were leaving after their daily ritual. With this last scene our stay in Laos came to a close, kicking off our journey into Vietnam!
Was it the night markets?, the food?, its french influenced streets and cafes? or the people and the conversations? I guess it was all of this. that made our stay in Laos, a pleasant and a special one.
- Water was cheaper (a difference of 5000 kip) in the grocery stores. This is always the case in most of the places. So stock it up for the entire day.
- Local food is the cheapest (that’s the case in any country). Baguette breads by the way is local to Lao. Its cheap and tasty as well.
- When you are dropped off at the bus station for your bus to next destination. Look out for driver or the conductor of your bus and show your ticket, they will exchange it and give you seat numbers. Try to be the first one, and you can request him your desired seats. Each seat has 3 columns, an A, B and C. Its a two floored sleeper arranged in 3 rows. So if you need the bottom sleeper, make sure to ask for it. Although its better off to be on the top one, so that you are not disturbed by people walking around. And the bottom ones are right on the floor of the bus.
- Vientiane bus stand has a restaurant serving fresh food and a store as well selling packed eatables and bread.
- Bus ticket for a sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabhang is 200000 Kips and is an 8 hours journey.
- Do not miss Kuang Si falls like we did! You should visit this place anyways because locals claim that the falls is at its best throughout the year. We saw few photos and videos taken by the other travelers, it was gushing with lush green water and wasn’t too crowded.
- Bus ticket from LP to Dien Bien Phu is 230000 kips including pick up from the hostel for a non-sleeper bus. Its one hell (literally) of a 12 hour journey!
- Language barriers do not stop people from being kind to travelers. And the other way around holds true too.
- One might think they have the busiest and most demanding job. Well, when you put your heart into it, any job is! No matter what your job is like, the world won’t crumble if you take a small break and have a meal. You are earning to be happy, so take care of your health. Health is wealth!
- People travel half way across the globe, away from home, only to make homes in hostels and cafes just the way they do back home! Even travelers, always tend to associate and attach to places and other people, it’s just that the settling in is for a much shorter while.
- Standard universal rules can never be applied as long as Murphy is alive. This is w.r.t waterfalls in summer! We skipped Kuang Si falls based on the dry experience at Kanchanaburi’s Erawan falls. But Kuang Si falls was a beautiful story especially because we missed it ! Its better to regret going and not liking a place rather than not going at all!
- Sabadee is Hello. Khub jai is thank you, pronounced as ‘cup chai’
See Pictures: Laos
Loop: Bangkok (via Udon Thani) -> Vientiane -> Luang Prabang -> Vietnam
Duration : 6 days
Country Loop: North Thailand -> Laos -> Vietnam -> Cambodia -> Myanmar -> Malaysia -> Philippines -> South Thailand -> Back Home