LAOS: backpacking from the north to the south

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We didn´t know if it´s Tuesday or Wednesday and we did not even care. We had all the time in the World, well at least until our plane left from Bangkok. We started our SE Asia trip in Cambodia, travelled through Vietnam from the south to the north, where we crossed the border to Laos. We had no plan where in Laos we wanted to go and where we will cross the border to Thailand, so we just took it day by day. Everything was peaceful in Laos – no mad horn beeping, not much traffic on the road, naked children were running around in small villages, sometimes we shared outside bathrooms with pigs, the electricity was often shut off in the evenings. In other words, it was exactly like some other countries were years before. It was great.

Who: 2 friends

When: December 2007

Visited: Sam Nuea, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Pakse, Bolaven Plateau, Si Phan Don islands

How: low budget backpacking

Stayed in: guesthouses and at local families

USEFUL INFORMATION

GETTING AROUND

Either a very old bus, a songthaew, a very new bus, motorbike, bicycle, on foot, on a back of an elephant or on a boat – we did it all. Getting from A to B often takes very very very long time and changing a tire is nothing uncommon. The buses do not have standard planned stops, so if you need to go for a toilet just go up to the driver and ask to stop. Our longest bus drive was from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the night (for 460km, from Sam Neua to Luang Prabang). We did switch the tire two times, we were even happy about it, because we could go for a pee without asking the driver ;). We went from the Na Maew/Nam Xo border crossing in the north-west of Laos to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Pakse & around to the 4000 islands in the south, on the Mekong river. After that we crossed the border again and continued our way in Thailand.

Hanoi, Vietnam to Ubon Ratchathani Thailand - Google Maps - Mozilla Firefox 15042015 164308

Transport was actually quite expensive in Laos, compared to other things. We took a night bus once, a very new and flashy one – and we even got dinner on it, so that was a pleasant surprise. In the south the infrastructure was more developed, so there were more buses and the roads were also better. In the north there were lots of hills, the roads were in a poor shape and sometimes there was just one bus or a songthaew in a few days. If you want to travel around in the north plan in enough time, because the transport alone will cost you much time.

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ACCOMMODATION

Sometimes we slept in very basic rooms, sometimes in small guesthouses, sometimes in small woodden cottages and sometimes at local families. We never had AC, sometimes a fan but not always.

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And sometimes the bathrooms surprised us… not necessarily in a positive way 😉

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COSTS

Visa costed us 20$, we took care of it already in Vietnam. We usually paid 5$ per room per night, the most expensive one was 10$ but it was actually a huge triple room with TV and a private terrace (the most luxurious room in the whole SE Asia trip). Breakfasts were 1-2$, lunch/dinner with drinks 4$. Full body massage was 4$. We bought some T shirts, bags, pillow cases, shawls – each item for 1-3$. Occasionaly we paid for an hour internet. Entry fees were usually low, a dollar or two. Bicycle rent per day was 1$.

FOOD

Sticky rice, papaya salad, noodles, curry, delicious spices, small snacks, food that you have never seen or eaten – everything easy accessible and cheap. The most expensive were occasional orders of western food, including a cheesecake, caesars salad or a pizza. A visit to a local market can be so much fun! If you wish to read more about our food experiences click on the link below the picture.

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read more about LAO FOOD

SHOPPING

So much to buy, but so little space in your backpack! We could not resist buying some things, as they were of good quality for the price we paid for it.

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WHAT WE SAW & DID

LONG WAY TO LUANG PRABANG


We already spent many hours on the vietnamese side in order to even come to Laos, but the journey to our first point of interest was long not over. After we spent our first night just 200 metres after the border, at a local family, we took a songthaew ride to Sam Nuea the next day. Sam Neua is a bigger town and we spent there one night – I actually had fever since we have been in Hanoi and was feeling very weak for the past few days so this long travelling was not so easy as I just wanted to sleep all the time. I missed out on some karaoke action in Sam Nuea. The next day was the first after 6 days without fever and I was happy to be on the bus to Luang Prabang – the drive itself was quite an adventure. We took off early in the morning and I think we were the only girls on the bus. We were stopping along the way all the time, picking up passengers. Soon there were also some woman on the bus. Since we were going up and down all the time, the road got really bad and at one point the bus could not handle the hills. Everyone had to go off and a rope was fixed to the front of the bus – all the men had to pull the bus by the rope uphill, after they “cleaned” the mud from road with shovels. Sheets of pink toilet paper were given to the men, for a better grip. They did a great job and we could continue – the music was back inside the bus and all the passangers were singing along, making strange sounds in between the lines, something like “frrrrrrr” “frrrrr”, it was quite amusing 🙂

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After that we changed the tyre two times before we reached Luang Prabang. We used those tyre changing stops for toilet visits, only that there were no toilets – we had to go into the bush. Woman always went to one side and men to the other. The drive took us about 19 hours (yes, 19 hours, for less than 500km). We were late and came at 3 AM in Luang Prabang – and we had to search for rooms. We knocked on doors of many guesthouses but everyone was asleep. Then, a Swiss guy came down the street, smoking a cigarrete – and was so shocked to see us that he offered us to sleep in his room, while he went to sleep in his friends room. How nice is that!? Dirty and smelly we fell asleep in a minute.

LUANG PRABANG


Finally here! Such a charming town, we walked around without a plan the first day and I could finally enjoy a cold beer after a week of fever. The night market was too inviting, so we had to buy something. We also succumbed to the tuna sandwich and a cheesecake for breakfast. We went for a fully body massage. We spent some days wondering around, discovering temples, talking to the monks, bathing by the waterfalls and bargaining at the markets. We were really happy to be in Laos, everything seemed so relaxed , laid back and easy.

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VANG VIENG


It was time to leave Luang Prabang and we booked our bus tickets in advance and left the next morning. I still remember we almost missed the bus and were running with our 12kg backpacks towards the bus station. Although the bus was supposed to have an air con, the driver left the front doors open the whole time of the drive. A little less than 7 hours later we arrived in Vang Vieng. Again, a very relaxed town, after we walked for a while, we found great little bungalows in the greens. The next day we borrowed bicycles and explored the countryside, caves and rice fields.

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There were many so-called TV bars or TV restaurants in Vang Vieng where you could eat your lunch and watch Friends, and honestly, after many weeks of no TV we did watch some of those also!

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Well, not that we ordered it, but we could! Often. At breakfast. Or at lunch. Not to mention dinner.

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Instead, we enjoyed a bottle of beer before going to sleep watching sunsets on our terrace 😉

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VIENTIANE


OK what is wrong with this picture? We are in Asia, it´s 11 am and the streets are almost empty! This can only happen in Laos! Welcome to Vientiane, the capital – clean, not too big and full of temples.

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PAKSE


After all the long rides we had in Laos so far, we decided to “splurge” on the V.I.P. night bus that took us to Pakse in the south. This one was more expensive, but you did get food and the seats were comfortable enough to sleep on. The first thing we did in Pakse was eat an Indian breakfast, visited the market, wondered around, had lunch and discussed our plans for the next days over a beer and this magnificent sunset by the Mekong river.

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BOLAVEN PLATEAU


We decided to spend “x days” on the Bolaven Plateau, discovering waterfalls and small villages. We stayed at local families and played with their kids, went fishing, learnt how to do the best papaya salads, danced to strange music and talked a lot with our hands. It was the best time of the whole SE Asia trip!

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Dogs and pigs, everybody happy together!

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Simple beds, no electricity in the evening and toilet with shower outside. The only problem was going to the outside toilet in the night, because we did not see all the animals on the way 😉

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We were the only foreigners in this village and it was such a great feeling to just walk around, we were without a doubt the focus of attraction!

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More waterfalls, markets and villages followed the next days:

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We ended up in a village called Ban Solonoy, where we spent a few great days with the most friendly people ever. They took us fishing and walking through their fields, visiting other family member who lived around, we watched how they cook sticky rice and chop papayas and in the evenings the whole village would come to “our house” and we ate, drank and danced together. We all drank beer from the same glass and everyone only always took one sip. When one bottle was finished we opened a new one. I think they were all very much drunk when the evening was over 😉

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Even the butterflies had good mood!

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Well, we had to leave sometime. So we did. Back to Pakse for one night and then to the 4000 Islands on the Mekong river.

SI PHAN DON


We chose to sleep on Don Det and the only problem we had was, that the only ATM in Pakse was broken and we were running out of money. So we really had to get very cheap through our days on Don Det, luckily everything was inexpensive anyway. We paid for our room only 1,5$ (that is per room, for the both of us) and put aside the money for the transport back to Pakse, all the rest we could spend.

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The whole atmosphere on Don Det and other islands around was so relaxed and we really enjoyed walking around. In the evening the electricity was shut off and everything was so quiet and peaceful. It was the perfect ending of our time in Laos. Afterwords we took a bus from Pakse to Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. Usually I do not like to return to the same countries, because I rather see something new, but at Laos I would love to make an exception!

 

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