Laos was the one country I was visiting in Southeast Asia which I knew next to nothing about (other than my friends telling me how much fun tubing was), so I really didn’t know what to expect.
While most of our friends in Thailand were booking the longboat straight to Luang Prabang, we hopped on a cheap bus to Huay Xai (a tiny town found right at the Laos border), along with a fellow backpacker from Sweden.
As the Lonely Planet puts it, in Huay Xai, “the only things trafficked through are travellers en route to Luang Prabang.” We were unsure of our next move, so after chatting to Sophie the other traveller with us, we chose to book a bus with her further North to Luang Namtha.
Located right next to the beautiful Namha National Park, which is popular with tourists for jungle trekking, we were eager to get our hiking shoes on and see some amazing scenery. We opted for a two day jungle trek and kayak tour along with some friends before trying our first Laotian dish – Jao (I believe this is how it’s spelt!) This has to be one of my favourite Asian dishes so far. It may vary in other areas of Laos, but the one we had consisted of two sauce based dishes of your choice (I opted for peanut and tomato) and a big basket of sticky rice – delicious is an understatement for sure.
Trekking in the jungle has to be one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of my trip so far, and I’m really glad I took part in it. The day of trekking was certainly challenging (our tour guides Hak and Mi were literally cutting some form of a path with machetes!) Having grown up in a local village nearby, Hak and Mi were experts in jungle life and it was fantastic to get off the beaten track a bit and see some awesome scenery. My favourite part of the experience was definitely the food. Our guides bought a few bits from the market beforehand (such as rice and vegetables) but also picked some fresh ingredients straight from the jungle. We ate with our hands straight off banana leaves and even drank out of cups freshly fashioned from bamboo! In the evening, we slept on the jungle floor, underneath a shelter made from sticks and banana leaves and enjoyed playing some guitar around a fire. This is also when we got to try the infamous ‘Laos Laos’ whiskey – now I’m not usually a whiskey fan, but a shot of this was just what I needed to warm me up and send me to sleep!
We welcomed a day of kayaking after a long day of trekking, and it was so much fun steering our way through the rapids and cooling off in the midday heat. Hak and Mi also took us to a local village there and told us all about the village lifestyle. It was wonderful to see so many excited children (6 of which attempted to fit on one bicycle!)
I was ready to get back into a thriving city with hot showers after a couple of days in the jungle. We arrived in Luang Prabang early the next day, after the craziest overnight bus ride of my life (think broken seats flying off from underneath you and people being sick into bags as you bounce along really windy roads). Confident that we’d be able to check into a hostel as soon as one opened, we grabbed some breakfast and a hot drink as we waited.
However this proved to be more difficult than we’d anticipated! Due to the Chinese New Year, pretty much everywhere had been booked up by Chinese tourists who go away to celebrate. Luckily, a group of four tourists overheard us asking a hostel if they had rooms and told us they were just about to check out and could have their beds – success!
For a relatively small sized city, Luang Prabang has a lot going on, so I can see why it’s a popular choice for Chinese holiday-goers to see in the New Year. Every evening, one of the main streets turns into a massive night market, full of tasty food and cheap goods. After a few beers at the night market, we’d usually head over to Utopia – a popular bar with backpackers. Once Utopia closes for the night, the crowd all descend to a nearby bowling alley (the only venue open after hours). If you’ve never seen a room full of drunken bowlers, then you need to get yourself to Luang Prabang, as it’s one of the funniest sights I’ve ever seen.
As it’s a small city, one of the best ways to get around is by bicycle, as you can follow a pretty route along the Mekong River around the city. We took our bicycles across the river to go visit the Pottery Village, however be warned, these city bikes are not designed for the bumpy dirt tracks and hills found on the other side!
The most popular tourist attraction in Luang Prabang is the waterfalls, which you can get to by tuk-tuk. We ended up missing this out, opting for some free attractions instead. Although I’ve heard amazing things about these waterfalls, so I’d definitely visit them if I came here again.
Highlights for us include the Wat Tham Phousi temple of Phousi Hill (great views of the city, especially at sunset) and the UXO Laos Visitor Center. While it’s easy to miss amongst the beautiful temples and riverside views, the UXO Visitor Centre is a must-see for anyone who wants to understand the harrowing effects of bombing in Laos. Little did I know before visiting, that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. The centre tells you all about the history of the bombing and the devastating effects it’s had and continues to have on many communities and families across Laos. It was an eye-opening visit which I will not forget.
Home to the infamous tubing I’d heard about, Vang Vieng was the city I was most looking forward to visiting in Laos. However, our visit didn’t quite get off to the best start, as we discovered late at night that our booked hostel had given our beds away because we were an hour late! After discovering that most hostels were either closed for the night or booked up, we managed to find one with one bed available. Edd kindly let me take it, while the hostel owner let him sleep in a hammock outside for free – much to my friend’s delight! We also got treated to a late night meal from the owner and free breakfast the next day. Unfortunately Edd had gotten pretty ill in Luang Prabang and so we temporarily said our goodbyes as he hopped on a bus to Vientiane to go to hospital.
Suddenly I found myself feeling as nervous as I was in Bangkok and the thought of turning up to a hostel all on my own was frightening! I returned to our booked hostel, who luckily had beds available again, and the owner was very sympathetic; offering me a free night’s stay to make up for it. It wasn’t long before I got chatting to people in my dorm room and headed out with one of the girls to explore the town.
Before we knew it, we were heading back to the hostel to change into our bikinis to go tubing! I can definitely see why tubing is a popular activity in Vang Vieng – who doesn’t like the idea of floating in a rubber tube on a sunny day with a nice cold beverage in hand? The tubing takes place along a river where several bars are situated. You can choose to stop off at any bar you like for a drink before carrying on back down the river towards to town. It wasn’t long before me and my new friend were playing beer bong and downing numerous shots. That’s when the tubing becomes more challenging, especially with the slight current! It was in the next bar when we discovered that our ‘dry bag’ wasn’t quite so dry after all…
We hastily rushed back to the hostel and whacked our phones straight into a bowl of rice.
But not to let that ruin the night, we joined others in our hostel and took advantage of the free whiskey provided by our hostel between 7 and 10pm. After drunkenly losing a few games of foosball and pool, myself and a few others headed to one of the bars offering the infamous mushroom shakes. I hadn’t yet tried magic mushrooms, although I’ve heard a few good things about them from friends, so I was excited to give them a go. Usually I detest mushrooms, but they were pretty much undetectable in the pineapple flavoured shake. It was a fun and wonderful experience, and I actually woke up with make-up smudged under my eyes from laughing so much!
Other than activities like kayaking, tubing and ziplining, there isn’t much else to do in the center of Vang Vieng besides drinking and enjoying the sunshine. On our last day, my friend and I went ziplining over the forest and river before getting back in a tube to go through some caves. It was an awesome adrenaline-filled day, and we finished off with some cocktails at Smile Beach Bar on the riverfront.
Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the South of Laos, which I’m pretty gutted about after having such a blast in Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. I was pleasantly surprised about Laos, and even though I’ve only seen a snippet of what the country has to offer, it’s definitely up there with one of the best countries I’ve visited so far.