Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a landlocked country that borders Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Thailand. It is peaceful and quiet, not experiencing the rapid industrialization and explosive population of its Chinese neighbor. (There are only about 7 million people in the entire country, spread out between the sparsely populated cities and the sprawling countryside). It was a delight traveling the country, although I regrettably didn’t have time to visit the southern regions (including Pakse and the 4 thousand islands). I would also have liked to have gone farther north, hopefully next time! In this blog post I hope to briefly document the places I stayed and most memorable things I did, along with their general costs. Hopefully you can find use in these recommendations as well as branch out on your own. The highest expense on my journey turned out to be transportation, as living expenses and food/beer turned out to be really cheap. For the prices I list, keep in mind that US $1 is about 8,000 kip.
I landed in the capital Vientiane and bought a cab to the hostel at a desk near the airport exit. The cab was a bit pricey (57,000 kip) for how short the journey wound up being. I stayed in the Dream Home, a backpacker hostel with plenty of other travelers hanging around in the cafe drinking coffee/beer and generally mixing socially. I didn’t have a reservation but there was still room in a 16 person dorm for 45,000 kip. The hostel has a pool and sits a mere five minute walk from the Mekong River. There’s free breakfast every morning, the outside chef fries up a couple eggs and serves it with toast and fruit. It’s also near the “downtown” area where all the restaurants and bars are located. A definite highlight of the trip was the delicious and affordable Beer Lao. Dream Home is only about an hour walk from the Pha That Luang temple, the symbol of Laos. There are also plenty of smaller Buddhist temples in the surrounding city. When ready to move on, I directly booked a bus trip out to Vang Vieng at the hostel reception for around 60,000 kip. Vang Vieng wound up being the cheapest place to stay on the journey (about $3 per night), and the epic scenery made me want to stay longer.
Pictures from Vientiane:
Vang Vieng (Wiki)
Vang Vieng is a beautiful little party town with plenty of outdoor activities for day outings. We stayed in a backpackers hostel called EasyGo a bit off the main road near the Earth recycled bar. It was unbelievably cheap ($3 a night) and we got lucky, having a four bed room entirely to ourselves. They provide lockers for your stuff, so bring a pad lock. Inside the town there are a bunch of super chilled out cafes. Laos is a former French colony, so many meals include entire delicious baguettes. Meals cost around $2. Many cafes play Friends on giant flat screen TVs and invite guests to lie down on pillows and watch over a hot meal. One of the first day outings we did was to go tubing on the river. We paid around 50,000 kip to rent the tube (with a 60,000 kip deposit to ensure you bring it back). A tuk tuk drives you down to the entry point and you just hop in. The river flows smoothly, and there are no scary points whatsoever. I’d heard that multiple people had died on the river, so I was surprised how calm it was. Unfortunately for us, the bars all along the side of the river had been closed temporarily during our trip due to the recent deaths. Someone must have gotten too drunk and tried something stupid, tragically killing themselves in the process. Which is understandable seeing how crazy the river bars were. Even without the riverside bars, it was still an unforgettable float with the miraculous Asian mountains towering over you and dense jungle covering the landscape. During the day there are tons of options for exploring in Vang Vieng, you can pay like $50 to go on a hot air balloon ride, mountain bike in the jungle, go to the blue lagoon and take a dip in the cool blue waters, or trek a cave. At night Vang Vieng is a hedonistic paradise, and there are places like Sakura Bar that literally just hands everyone free drinks. Again, I booked my bus to Luang Prabang through my hostel at a cost of about 40,000 kip.
Luang Prabang (Wiki)
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site full of culture and day trips. When we got into town we climbed the Phousi Mountain across from the Museum and looked out over the whole town during the sunset. The entrance fee was 20,000 kip, but the view at the top was quite stunning. Albeit crowded with tourists for sunset. The next day we woke up early to see the giving of the alms (which starts at 6:00 a.m.). Local residents kneel ceremoniously and give food to the passing Buddhist monks, who walk shoeless in the streets. I did snap one photo quickly, but felt terrible doing it because a brigade of Western tourists follow these poor monks around lighting them up with camera flashes as they try to complete their ritual. They don’t seem particularly pleased with this but tolerate it. Later we went to the Museum across from Phousi Mountain which doesn’t allow pictures inside. The museum details the life of Sisavang Vatthana, the last king of Laos, taking you through a tour of his kingly manor. There are Buddhist relics collected from India, Laos, and Thailand. You are also able to look at the elaborate throne that King Vatthana sat on, as well as viewing articles and rooms from his personal life. Many items were gifted to the royal family from various countries like a Jeep looking Toyota from Japan, beautiful paintings and crafts from China, and Buddha carvings from India. All in all the Museum was thought provoking. Definitely worth the 20,000 kip entrance fee. After the museum we rented a tuk tuk to go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, a highlight of the entire trip. The driver asked for something like 60,000 kip, but we bargained him down to 30,000 to go there and back. The entrance to the falls was another 20,000 but it was well worth the admission. Inside are a series of spectacularly blue waterfalls. A sign explained that the water flows over limestone, and the Calcium Carbonate results in the pools’ effervescent blue color. You can swim in some of the pools so bring a suit. Walking along the hiking path past the biggest falls you will eventually come to a wooden fence with a hole in it that says “Do not enter.” We were advised to enter this hole, and that was definitely a good idea. Up the path is a pool at the midpoint of the giant falls, and you can swim right up to them and take a nice shower. Many people obviously received the same advice as there were multiple people enjoying the hidden treasure. The next day we booked a two hour boat ride out to the Buddha cave for 90,000 kip. It departed at 8:00 a.m. and was a bit chilly on the river, everyone on our boat was cold so bring a sweater! On the way to the caves the boat stops in Whisky Village so you can buy some booze or beautiful handmade textiles. The Buddha cave is split into an upper and lower level, both filled with Buddha statues. Back in Luang Prabang we went to the night market to do some trinket shopping, and in a small, crowded side alley at the end of the market is a delicious buffet. You pay 15,000 kip for all you can eat. You just throw everything in a bowl and they stir fry it up. Amazing selection too! And if you are looking for nightlife in town, Utopia was the most stunning bar we visited. A full on beach volleyball court, pillows overlooking the gorgeous countryside, reasonably priced beer (15,000 kip), and lots of mingling travelers. Finally, in the center of town I booked an overnight sleeper bus back into Vientiane (around 100,000 kip). The bed was cramped on leg room and you have to sleep next to a stranger but it worked out fine.