In September 2010 I went back to Australia for a while after spending months travelling in the US, Europe and Asia. My return was to catch up with family and friends, do some travel there and a few months of contract work to boost the coffers, then I had planned to move to the US. But with the economy still in the gutter I thought, what the hell, I am going to Vietnam and Laos for 2 months (via Singapore)! So I put the relocation off for a while and headed to S.E. Asia. I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 4 of that journey (Northern Laos).
November 13th, 2010
Leaving Vientiane I headed North to Vang Vieng which is about a 4 hour bus trip. Surrounded by impressive karst mountains and forest, Vang Vieng is the backpacker party place in Laos and a foreigner swamped nightmare to be honest. A total contrast from the normally peaceful country.
I stayed for 1 night only in Vang Vieng, long enough to do the famous river tubing on a tractor tyre inner tube – you float down the Nam Song River for a few hours, surrounded by mountains and forests, with lots of party places to stop at along the way. Totally crazy fun, and I will have a nice long scar on my leg as a lasting reminder of slamming into some river rocks! A deep, fast flowing river along with alcohol does not mix too well. Numerous deaths have occurred doing this activity. One word of advice: try and get off the river before nightfall…..myself and my fellow travellers did not! Alas I had too much fun and have only one photo from the town (look up river tubing on YouTube and you will get the idea of the madness).
Some people spend days and others weeks in Vang Vieng, but I didn’t come to Laos to party hard, I had things to see and places to go. Although it was fun, drinking from plastic buckets (like the ones kids use at the beach) full of high strength alcohol, while incredibly cheap is extremely “deadly”! In hindsight I would have liked to have explored the surrounding mountains but I unfortunately did not have enough time. Oh well it was fun while it lasted!
The next day I took a 6.5 hour bus trip along steep winding mountain roads further North to Luang Prabang. The bus was full, lots of locals and a few tourists, plus chickens. I was under the weather so it was an interesting trip! The scenery along the journey was amazing, but read severe motion sickness with all those twists and turns! I wish I had taken photos on the bus but I seriously felt like crap!
Luang Prabang is a nice peaceful place, on the Mekong River, the former Lao Royal capital, dominated by Buddhist temples and many monks with their orange and yellow robes are seen throughout the town. I have visited a number of the temples with great names such as Wat Xiang Thom, Wat Sop and Wat That! They are all very decorative and relaxing places to visit.
A highlight of Luang Prabang was climbing up to the top of Phou Si Hill dotted with various temples and Buddha statues (oh and an old anti-aircraft gun emplacement to totally contradict the Buddhist peace and love!). A lot of monks were wandering around up there too. The hill provided some great views of Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside.
The former Royal Palace was also an interesting diversion – the last King Savang Vatthana was forced to abdicate the throne in 1975 with the take over of the Communist Pathet Lao. The last Royal family of the Kingdom of Laos ruled from 1904-1975. The King, Queen Khamphoui and Crown Prince Vong Savang were taken to a remote re-education camp (along with other Princes), where they all died in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s (the King and Queen were in their 70’s when they died, the Crown Prince would have been about 47 at the time of his death). Surviving family members mainly reside in France today. The palace is quite decorative and the Royal Wat although small is very elaborate inside.
I went across the river by boat to the village of Xiang Men and the deserted What Chom Phet temple on the hill for sunset views of Luang Prabang. It was certainly a nice view, but getting there was the adventure – to get to the other side I walked along negotiating until I rented this long-boat and driver for an hour – it was massive, seated at least 15 people but I was the only one onboard apart from the driver and his wife. It was the best option at short notice and only cost <$4!
The night market in Luang Prabang is massive and has the best quality hand-made products I have seen in Asia (unlike many markets it was not an endless parade of the same products, there were many unique arts and crafts etc). I tried to convince this American girl standing next to me that the old French Indochina Piastre coin she was buying so cheaply was a fake but she was so happy to have an old coin from 1428….shame they didn’t start making them until 1885! I discussed this with the girl selling them, she just looked at me with a cheeky smile and shrugged her shoulders, needless to say I bought an 1888 one elsewhere with the mint mark for less than a dollar more…..
My last full day in Laos was awesome – it started with a morning Elephant trek through jungle and creek beds about 30 minutes out of Luang Prabang in a small tour group. The female Elephant we were allocated wasn’t happy with the Mahout and just wanted to eat, but she reluctantly got going with a few growls of disgruntlement (she kept eating plants along the creek line), and gave the odd dirty look at the guy (I was waiting for her to go mental and crush him….). I got to sit on her neck for part of the trek, which was not overly comfortable in the obvious area but a great experience none the less.
Then we went kayaking to Tad Sae Waterfall (beautiful clear blue water cascading down multiple levels) for swimming – including an unexpected swim with an Elephant. this was quite amazing and I wish I had a waterproof camera to have captured it! From the waterfall we went kayaking down Nam Khan River for a few hours. This was also great fun (if not a bit tiring – I was in a solo kayak) and we got to see some beautiful countryside, riverside farms etc. A few small rapids on the way kept it exciting!
Now my time has come to an end in Laos. I could have spent longer there, and hope to return to explore the south some time, but for now I have returned to Hanoi in Vietnam. I plan to visit old Uncle Ho, his embalmed body should have been returned from Russia by now (goes there each year for 2 months for maintenance). I have seen Lenin in Moscow, Mao in Beijing… so I cannot miss seeing Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi!