A flying visit to Laos

With only a week dedicated to visiting Laos it was a pain to say the least that we’d already lost a day thanks to our slow boat ‘mishap’. At the time I was gutted, but in hindsight a week was enough for me.

Don’t get me wrong, Laos is an outstandingly beautiful country, probably the most beautiful I’ve seen in Asia yet, but unfortunatly the place just isn’t for me.

I wouldn’t say I’d never visit again. I’ll just put this one down to a bad experience…

Luang Prabang

After arriving to our hostel a day late we couldn’t wait to check in, dump our bags and head out for some food and a cold beer. But nothing is ever as simple as that.

After being dumped by the boat 10km from town, we got in a tuk-tuk bound for the hostel. Quite a while of driving round later, the driver divulged he had no idea where he was going. So off we hopped to ask some locals the way. We finally arrived and got shown to our room, well a dorm room.

Please note: As there’s four of us travelling, it’s just as easy and cheap to get private rooms instead of dorms – making us all feel a bit safer about leaving our belongings. Following suit this is what we booked in Luang Prabang.

After asking the owner why we were in a dorm room after we’d paid for a private, he came back with the standard Asian line, “Same same but different.”

Well that just makes no sense.

As time was ticking on we decided to give up, dump our bags and head for food. Maybe tomorrow would be a better day…

Thanks to ye ole Trip Advisor we’d planned a few things we wanted to do in Luang Prabang, so set off in search for the Royal Palace.

After asking a few locals we decided that the general consensus was that the Royal Palace didn’t exist. Not believing that trip advisor would lie to us we carried on looking and low and behold we found it. I’ll give everyone the benefit of the doubt, after all there is no royal family here anymore. Maybe if we’d asked for the museum we would have had more luck.

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We wandered around for a couple of hours and admired the beauty of the place. Right at the end there’s an exhibition which shows all the gifts given to the royal family.

In true form, the Americans gift was pretty impressive. After taking the Laos flag into space, Richard Nixon returned the flag, with a plaque and fragments of the moons surface. I guess they must have felt really bad about all the bombs.

After searching high and low we couldn’t find anything from the United Kingdom, maybe ours got lost in the post.

The following day we headed off to another travel agency and, with our fingers crossed this one wouldn’t be such a mess up, booked a tour to see the Kuang Si Falls and bear rescue sanctuary.

I couldn’t wait to go to the bear sanctuary after seeing it on ‘Operation Wild’ before I came out to Asia. The programme followed Champa, a medical pioneer: the world’s first bear to undergo brain surgery.

Most of the bears at the centre are Asiatic Black bears aka Moon bears that were illegally captured from the wild as young cubs – it is likely that they were destined for use in the traditional medicine trade.

We must have arrived during the siesta as all of them were sparked out. On the plus side at least they sat still for us to take some photos.

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After being engrossed in the bear sanctuary we didn’t have long to swim at the waterfall. After being nibbled by the fish a couple of times, I was up and out of there. Not sure I was in the water long enough to even call it a ‘quick dip!’.

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That night we headed out into the town to see what all the fuss was about two famous backpacker haunts: Eutopia bar and the bowling alley.

Eutopia was well hidden off the beaten track and despite the hoards of backpackers was a great place to chill out after a day sightseeing. We even threw the budget out the window that night and enjoyed a carafe of red wine. How very civilised!

Wondering why anyone would then want to go to a bowling alley we quickly discovered why. As the bar shuts up at 11pm everyone heads outside, attempts to locate their shoes in the messy pile outside and grabs the nearest tuk-tuk to the bowling alley – the only place open later than 11pm. Mystery solved.

It’s no hidden gem, it really is just a bowling alley, and not a great one at that. But it was good fun. Especially because I won.

After just a few hours sleep we were up and out again for the monks Alms Giving Ceremony.

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As the sun rises in Luang Prabang around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal. The tradition of alms gathering dates back to the 14th century, yet still today locals wake early to prepare the food for the monks and wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts.

In my opinion, they should just call it fast food as the monks practically run along the pavements accepting gifts of food.

We’d decided on the walk in to simply observe the ritual. Which is lucky since we’d planned on buying one meal as our gift, however upon our arrival it appeared that you in fact gave a gift, to each monk.

Seeing how unprepared we were, they’re lucky they didn’t end up with a Kellog’s frostie each.

Stayed at Sisombath Guesthouse
A basic but pleasant enough hostel. The staff were lovely and breakfast was included! Just a short ten-minute walk into the main town but lots of local food places nearby. Like the rest of Loas the wifi was a bit dodgy but worked intermittently throughout our time there.

Vang Vieng

After the confusion with our hostel in Luang Prabang I thought it would be safer to email ahead and confirm our booking.

Ping! Email received. Not quite the standard confirmation email I was expecting…

Hello Victoria,

The owner is having a big celebration for her past family members (Laos style funeral) In turn the kitchen will be closed for Saturday and Sunday, but everyone staying with us is welcome to join in, food will be provided. I hope this isn’t a problem for you.

See you soon!

On the plus side at least we would be able to experience a true local tradition. In preparation we read up on Loas funerals and adjusted our wardrobes accordingly.

You could hear the ceremony long before you could see it, not quite the somber occasion we were expecting. As we stood on the ‘pavement’ wondering how best to filter through the mourning crowd, a young man approached us and his face said it all…

After trying to fob us off with a story about a problem with their booking system going haywire, I was in no mood to play along. Showing him the confirmation email I received no less than 24 hours ago, he held his hands up and told us that the owner of the hostel had, that very day, decided to give away all the hostel rooms to her family visiting for the funeral. If only he’d said this in the first place we could have been on our way. After all, we’re not heartless souls.

We plodded round the corner to another guesthouse and booked in for one night. It looked like something from a horror film. Long dark corridors, creaky floorboards and small children’s footprints in the dust. We had a seven bed dorm to ourselves. The fact all the beds were different sizes and styles made me laugh, it was like being one of the seven dwarves.

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We survived the night but decided to head to a new guesthouse we’d heard about during the previous evening out. Vang Villay Guesthouse was our saviour. Feeling deflated after a series of unfortunate events, it was the pickup we needed; four big comfy beds, a large bathroom, tv and speaker system perked us right up. And just in time… it was our day to go tubing.

As soon as you mention to people you’re going to Laos you’ll always hear, ‘You have to go tubing!’.

Tubing is the art of floating down the Nam Song river in the inner tube of a tractor.

We set off around 1pm and were told that if we got back by 6pm we’d get our deposit back. As the guy said this with a smirk, little did we know that nearly no one makes it back by 6pm. Sneaky!

We read up on some of the common tubing scams that are set to make you miss the 6pm deadline:
– Other people taking your tube
– Clocks on bars being 15 minutes slow
– Lots of ‘finishing points’ made by tuk-tuk drivers to get you to exit the river no where near the city

Charming!

We met up with a few buddies we’d made the previous day and headed down to the river – which was flowing a LOT quicker than I’d expected. Not quite the lazy river I’d pictured in my head.

After about twenty minutes tubing, we got into the swing of it. Hooking our feet under each other’s tubes to float down as one giant pod, stopping off when barmen threw ropes to drag us in.

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The bars are a lot tamer to what they used to be. Long gone are the days when you could rope swing into the river. Seems they do have health and safety here after all… in a loose sense.

The bars are all pretty close together, but we’d heard a rumour that the last leg of the river was a lot longer. Determined to make it back by 6pm, we left the last bar by 5pm and made our way down to the river.

Everything was going to plan until we saw a lone man floating around, asleep in his tube. As we never learned this mans name, I shall refer to him as ‘America’. We’d all heard the horror stories of tubing which pretty much always began this way, so in Kate jumped. Grabbing America’s tube and shaking him awake.

After deciding that he was in no fit state to navigate his way back, we hooked him into the pod and dragged him down the river to the end point.

An hour later we were still floating, and by this time not only was it getting dark, but I’d become separated from my group and latched onto another. Glad not to be floating alone, I put the worry of not having any money, shoes or clothes to the back of my head and enjoyed the dark scenery.

After passing three fake end points, we finally made it to the end, gone 6pm, with America still in tow.

The only casualty that day was James’ pair of Oakley sunglasses.

Stayed in Vang Villay Guesthouse
Brilliant guesthouse with a fantastic owner – so helpful and friendly!

Our four-bed private dorm was extremely spacious, but some of the single and double rooms did look quite cosy.

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