Deb & Roger’s YB Travel Adventures to Laos 1997 & 2009
In 1997 we made our first attempt to go to Laos. We were staying in Nong Khai in northern Thailand on the banks of the Mekong River. This was the first year they opened a bridge to Laos, the Friendship Bridge. So no longer did you have to sit for days waiting on a Visa.
We were with our friends Tracy and Cleveland. The plan was to go to Vientiane, the capital, which was just across the bridge from Nong Khai. Then continue on inland to Luang Prabang, a place travelers told me was amazing.
Laos was just opening up for tourism, having previously been under a Communist regime, capitalism was not as we know it. So once we actually got to Vientiane and saw what was really happening, found out that traveling overland was not advisable as there was fighting in the highlands, that prices were astronomical, the atmosphere oppressive, we couldn’t wait to get back to Thailand.
But it continued to be on my mind so in 2009 it happened. We were sitting in Hanoi thinking we wanted a new adventure having spent months in Vietnam several times before. I mentioned Luang Prabang, we did some research, was able to book a flight for the next day so off we went. We flew into Luang Prabang, one of the smallest airports I have ever flown into.
Everyone was friendly and courteous, and quickly we were in a covered pick up truck taxi headed to the hostel we had booked for one night. Once settled we would look for something we liked better.
We had no idea how long we would be staying in Luang Prabang, or Laos for that matter. We had two months. The day we arrived we found a beautiful room in a wooden house right on the Mekong River so decided to stay a least a week.
We loved the tranquility, the ambience and wonderful energy of the place. And there were so many day trips to waterfalls, elephant camps, and Wats (temples) accessible only by boat. We enjoyed the dragon boat races on the river, and the gentleness of the place that made one day fold into another. We were there two weeks before we even began to contemplate going elsewhere.
We did want to explore the north to see how difficult it might be to travel to the Chinese border so got motivated and headed up north to Nong Khiew. It isn’t that far but without proper roads, and the road being windy and mountaineous, it took half a day in a non-ac local vehicle, completely full, but we did have our own seat, and a bumpy ride as the van needed new shocks.
On arrival in Nong Khiew, while beautiful and unspoilt, there wasn’t a lot to do and the small family owned restaurants didn’t have very good food (lucky to have any at all way out here) so we only spent one night at a place right on the river.
We did walk about a mile up the hill behind the river to take a look at the Historical Pathok Cave where the Laos people took refuge during the bombings that took place during the their civil war.
From the paved road we had to walk down a sticky clay path where a man was there to collect money. Not sure if he was official, but it was such a small amount, we paid it, then crossed a swinging bridge, walked through muddy rice fields then arrived at the cave entrance. The stairs up were suspect, but we were there so carefully made our way up.
The cave was huge, you could just imagine yourself there during the war. It was also such a strategic location, you could see anyone approaching from miles away, yet you were completely hidden. But how so many people ate, drank, and managed all the other bodily functions is a tribute to what one can bear when your survival is at stake.
Next day we had to fight for a ride back to Luang Prabang which again is typical of this place which is just a stopping off point for those wanting to go further north. So the few tourists that come this way are truly taken advantage of. But I am glad we went, the beauty of this unspoilt area is stunning.
We got back to Luang Prabang and felt like one might feel going from a tent to Red Roof Inn. Luxurious! We continued our stay in Luang Prabang for a few days as we made plans to go to Vientiane to get our visa’s for China. We decided to take the bus and stop off for 3 or 4 days in Vang Vieng on the way down.
The bus ride to Vang Vieng through the mountains and lush forest was remarkably beautiful. We didn’t mind the long ride at all, but some people did get car sick with all the switchbacks. Our hotel in Vang Vieng was right on the river and our room was on the top floor (no elevators) but our views to the Karst Mountain landscape was mystical.
We enjoyed this laid back village, renting inner tubes and floating down the river with the Karst mountains rising up green and majestic on each side. We rented a motorbike and rode across the river into an even more remote area where we climbed to a cave and saw a beautiful blue swimming area. Then took the road (dirt) further in until we were the only people. It is an amazing feeling.
This was a fun place for a few days, but then it was time to get back on the road so we once again caught the bus and ended up at a truly fabulous small boutique hotel in Vientiane. The people in Vang Vieng suggested it and it was stunning. The location was a block from the Mekong River and we could walk to restaurants, laundry, and most of the attractions. The day after we arrived we took a Tuk Tuk (rickshaw type vehicle) out to the Chinese Embassy and applied for our Visa’s which took just 3 days.
Vientiane is a beautiful, sophisticated capital city and I actually could live here. There are great restaurants, an expat community, high speed internet, the river, and international airport and you are just across the bridge from Nong Khai Thailand.
Laos is bordered on the East by Vietnam, (approximately 87 million people), Thailand on the West (approximately 68 million people) and China (Yunnan province on the North (1.3 billion people). You can see why Laos, with only six million people and half under the age of 21, is such a hidden gem.
It is really undeveloped and the topography interesting, flora and fauna beautiful, and a lot of intact forest. Primary ways to get around are bicycles in the villages. Or, overland the public transport, or buses for tourists which are a bit better, and always takes a bit of time. Then there are the boats, but you are limited as to where you can go, and they also time. Or, you can fly. But who is in such a hurry! Better to savor the experience.
There are no big tourist buses, and most lodging and restaurants are run by individuals. It is like going back in time only with some of the benefits of today like internet, good coffee and delicious food. I loved it because I love nature and see so little of this type of naturalness left in the world.
Luang Prabang, or “Royal Buddha Image (in the Dispelling Fear mudra),” is a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about 425 kilometers (264 mi) north of Vientiane.
It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province. The current population of the city is about 103,000. The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. The city is also notable as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The main part of the city consists of four main roads located on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. One of the major landmarks in the city is a large steep hill on which sits Wat Chom Si.