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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together


LAOS | Sunday, 10 February 2008 | Views [1375]

Wed 6th Feb - After settling went walkabout in Hauy Xia. The main road through the town is geared up for the passing tourist trade with shops and guest houses. Getting off the main road though, is rewarding as the old village is full of traditional wooden housing in really quaint setting. There is a temple above the town accessed up steps from the main road opposite the boat landing road. I was lucky enough to be up there about 6pm when the sun was setting and the buddhist monks had started their chanting prayer ritual. Sat and watched for a while as the atmosphere was magic.

There was a group of students up there who wanted to practice their english and had their text books with them. It was a pleasure to spend time with them as they were keen to learn.

Had a nice meal later at the guest house, joined by a nice group of french travellers, so it gave me chance to practice my french. Good food at he BAP guest house albeit a bit slow on the service. No hurry anyway.Thu 7th Feb -

Picked up at the guest house a 9:30 to get to the slow boat ferry. First off you get your passport checked and your final boat ticket issued. This is where it gets fun. You are told that the slow boat leaves at 10:30am and there is only one boat that holds 30 people....Not true. Our boat left at 12am and there was about 150 people arrived so they ran a second boat. Our boat had about 90 people on it, most on wooden 2 seater benches. There is an area at the back of the boat where you can crash out on the wooden floor, but it is right by the engine and extremely noisy. Food is available from the bar, which also served drinks (Laos beer in abundance). Apparenly, not all of the boats have this, so it is wise to bring your own food and drink on board just in case.

The other thing is that the first night's stop at Pakbeng is supposed to be a bit rustic and many places have no electricity. Also, bear in mind that a few boats full of this many travellers offloading at the same time and all wanting accommodation, means a free for all to get a good room at the right price. Best to book ahead if possible, but not absolutely necessary as plenty of touts around at the landing pier.

The mighty Mae Khong (Mekong) is a divider between six countries...China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, laos and Thailand. All have a vested interest in its future and there are negotiations happing on this. There are a number of hydroelectric dam projects along it length.

The boat set a nice pace with the breeze just right to keep cool. The scenery along the Mae Khong river is stunning. Lots of idyllically positioned thatched huts with their own stretch of beautiful beach (whitish grit sand), set amidst winding weathered strange limestone rock formations. Hills territory almost all the way. Occasional stops to drop off locals and pick up others along with their goods. Great opportunity to chat or relax (although the engine is fairly relentless, you get used to it), and take it all in.

Did I tell you a story I heard recently in a bar (surprise).... Many guys come to Thailand to find their perfect thai partner...young, gorgeous, petite etc etc. One very wealthy guy, actually a millionaire, married this pretty young thing. In thai law, a foreigner cannot easily own property there, so he signed the marital home into his new wife's name as is ever so common. Shortly afterwards, possibly in a fit of passion, he snuffed it with a heart attack. Not only did she get the house, but all of his wealth in properties back in the states and access to his very lucrative pension. His family tried to get a share without success as the small print in the legal documents that were draughted up in Thailand, that he signed and agreed, gave everything to his new partner. Instant millionairess she was. She was in her early twenties! On the boat today, a guy in his upper seventies with a fit thirties thai girl....his third/fourth marriage...reminded me of the story. She was reading teen type magazines whilst he was telling war stories! The main thing is he is happy, and as long as he goes with a smile on his face, then good on him. His family were over here for a holiday...wonder if they were checking her out as she was very attentive towards him, hopefully not for their benefit?

Back to the journey....the scenery just keeps getting better. Plenty of thatched villages along the route and stretches where the river cuts through steep cuttings. Arrived at Pakbeng at 6pm as planned. The boats pull in along a sandy escarpment, so we had to scramble up a sandy bank with backpacks to get to the road. Not surprisingly, Pakbeng is set up for tourists with probably twenty or more guest houses of varying standard, but mainly budget. Loads of restaurants and stalls. Stopped at the phantagoan guest house for 200 baht a night. A traditional wooden house, so nice and authentic (and basic).

The sky was really clear tonight and so full of stars it was great to just walk to the top of the road (there is only one road here) and stare up at the sky for a while. Plenty of choice in food. Was fairly hungry so ended up having two meals...a Laos curry in one restaurant, and then off to an indian restaurant for an indian curry. The portions were small so needed the two meals. Average price for a meal about 5000 kip for something simple up to 22,000 kip for something more substantial.

There is no electricity in the evenings, so most of the guest houses run on individual generators until about 10pm then much of the town dies. Most of the restaurants had candles on the tables ready for when the power stopped, and many of the stalls have to use candles as they have no generator backup. No electricity means no hot water and no pump for water, so facilities a bit basic.Fri 8th Feb -

Not much on offer for breakfast. Omelette or toast and a Laos coffee..fairly thick and sweet.

Off to catch the boat....mmmm.....interesting. The boat I arrived on yesterday is not the boat i'm going to Luang Prabang on. The ticket doesn't say that, nor was it explained. There were about 20 boats with not a clue which one goes where. So many travellers stood around similarly confused. You ask many people with nobody able to say which one to get on. Eventually, one of the boat crew makes some gesture that seems to point to one of the boats sandwiched in amongst the others and we drift towards it. Yep, this is the one. Some people have tickets, others have no idea what to do, so get on the boat to be told they need a ticket and have to scale the steps and embankment to find someone to buy a ticket from. That's not obvious either. Amidst disorganised chaos, we all manage to get on a boat. The seats on this one are rickety wooden benches that tilt over if you shift the wrong way.

Pakbeng is an interesting stopoff point and adds to the adventure. Definitely worth doing this route as opposed to just getting a sequence of buses to get to Luang Prabang.

A bit about Laos while i'm thinking about it....

After being in the traps of communism for many decades, classed as the most bombed nation on earth! The french, british, chinese and siamese have all had an influence here, following a very turbulent past fraught with wars and invasion. Formerly called 'Lao', it was the french who made is 'Laos'. They also drive on the right as a result of the french colonial rule (for which they weren't favoured). It was the khmer warlord 'Fa Ngum' who gave the country a kick-start in the 14th century when he brough together its major cities and towns under one control. It was then given the title of 'Land of a million elephants - Lan Xang'. Buddhism was made the state religion (Theravada variety), and buddha was made the national symbol. After many changes, the french gave the country its present boundary after negotiations with neighbouring countries and then granted it's sovereignty in 1953. 20 years of chaos followed as things settled down with communists (influenced by vietnam, china and russia) trying to get control over the US backed parties. The country was 'Carpet bombed' by the US from 1965 to 1973 which decimated much of the country and had a counter-productive effect of forcing the country back to communism against the US who imposed a trade ban with the country. This was still in place until 2004. As a result of the bombing, the country has a legacy of 'Unexploded Ordinance' or bombs that have largely been cleared but many still remain, so some areas are risky to travel through independently.

The country is still in recovery and will take time to find itself amongst competition from neighbouring countries, although Thailand has the greatest influence here. Evident in the cultural similarities and religious systems. There is one funny statement from one of the groups called the 'cargo cult', who believe that Jesus Christ will reappear in a jeep wearing combat fatigues!

After a really relaxing time, the boat finally arrived in Luang Prabang at 6pm. Getting late, so importan to sor out somewhere to stay. I had been forewarned that LP was expensive, but it is a bit of a shock when guest houses were quoting 40 to 85 dollars a night! Ridiculous price even though they looked nice. Ended up taking the last room at a less celubrious place for 70,000 kip a night (about $7). Not much budget accommodation around, so beware! Shower, shave and a change of clothes then hit the streets.

The main road through the old town is Thanon Sisavangvong. A really lively place with wall to wall restaurants, guest houses, shops, massage centres, internet shops and tour agents. There is an ATM too. Had a nice meal at the caf? le croissant then off for a walk. There is a really good atmosphere here, busy but good quality. There is a superb Hmong market off the main road by the palace and also another big market further along by the Phousi hotel area. Excellent quality stuff for any avid shoppers. One stall also had a nice display of the famous 'Laos Snake Whiskey'. It has real snakes and sometimes scorpions pickled in the whiskey. Not too great to look at but must try some to see what it tastes like.

Sat 9th Feb - Breakfast overlooking the Nam Khan, the river that joins the Mea Khong at the peninsula. Kids come along with trays of stuff to sell. Got a couple of nice laos bracelets for $1. It is easy to walk around LP. Many hire bicycles of motorbikes but it isn't really necessary.

Changed accommodation to the Heritage Guest House round the corner for 80,000 kip and its own bathroom, then booked a trip tomorrow to Pak Ou caves.

Walkabout....First stop, the 'Wat Xieng Thong' (entry 20,000 kip). Built by King Setthathirat in 1560 in magnificent Laos layered roof  style. Apart from the superb gold detail on the columns and walls, there are many buildings on the site with completely different unique design. The royal funeral chapel houses a 12m high funeral chariot and urns for each member of the royal family.

Next, the Royal Palace Museum on thanon  Sisavangvong. Got the timing wrong as it was closing for lunch, so will go back later. The same site has the Laos cultural theatre which I might go to see tonight. Funny thing...also on the same site is the 'Floating Buddha'. Only got to see photos posted of a young buddhist monk sitting on a low stone and surrounded by leaves so that it lookes as if he is hovering above the ground. A con, but a funny one.

Next to 'Phu Si' (entry 20,000 kip) across the road. 138 steps to climb to the top, where you get great views of LP. From there I saw a golden temple on a distant hill that wasn't in my guidebook, so decided to head for it. Stop in a Laos café on the way for some nice noodle soup and a chat with some friendly locals.

The temple has a sign on it saying 'Wat Phra That Khong Santi Chedi' the sign at the entrance gate says 'Wat Pha Phol Phao'. You can climb to the top from inside and each layer is rather strangely painted with garish murals depicting death scences and all sorts of weird stuff, with buddha images in various poses. It is actually thought provoking as I think it is aimed to be.

Back out on the streets to check out some options for the forthcoming days. A few places offer cooking courses between $25 and $35 a day. Have also been looking at trekking into the hills to vidi he tribe villages and kayaking with a small group. The many tour companies who can organise these special treks put up marker boards outside to get more interest if you haven't got a large enough group together. I want no more than say four people as otherwise it makes it too busy. Will have to keep checking each day to see if anyone else is interested. The 'Plain of Jars' is also a popular place and might do that independently using public transport. More on what that's about at a later date.

After a nice laos meal, off to the market for some fresh fruit as I haven't had any today and the Hmong market again. Then it all closes up again for the 11:30 curfew. It seems crazy that a place as busy as this shuts down at such an early time.

Sun 10th Feb - Up early as being picked up at the Guest House for a trip to 'Pak Ou' caves. I hadn't realised that luckily the monk's Tak Bat procession went right past my guest house, so go treated to a colourful start to the day. It is a bit of a chaotic situation as, despite warnings for people to respect the process, hundreds of photographers are dashing everywhere and generally disrupting things to have their pictures taken and stick their lenses into monk's faces. In some ways you cannot blame them as it is a bit of a show for most people and I think they forget the reason it is happening. I feel sorry for the monks as they must feel like they are part of a circus act sometimes.

Off to have breakfast by the river. The Laos people are good business entrepreneurs. There are a few rickety bamboo bridges crossing the river that you have to pay to use. The centre section gets raised at night and lowered again in the morning. I watched the owner reassemble his bridge whilst having breakfast. Further to this, the kids then set up little stalls to sell small items they have manufacured themselves to anyone who passes. Little dolls and bracelets mainly. They are great fun and always have a smile.

Onto a narrow 14 seater boat for the trip up the Mekong. It's cold this morning, which has been the typical behaviour. Fortunately, it warms up later.

First stop was 'Ban Xang Hai' (Ban means village), a place known for its Lao whiskey (Laoh-khao). Off the boat and on to a rickety bamboo bridge to the village. Samples of the whiskey given, so first in the queue.... Didn't mention...this is the whiskey with snakes, Scorpions, massive centipedes and other large dead objects in it. Tasty! The still for making I is a basic arrangement and a batch was on the go next to the stand. Not met anyone yet who has actually bought a bottle. I wonder why?

Some lovely handwoven materials on offer too. Their styles are very attractive and reasonably priced. The village has a really beautiful temple, which was being redecorated by the monks. A really old monk at on the verandah of an old teak house was watching the young ones at work with their paint brushes. He looked about 90 years old. This village is accessible by road and is worthy of more of a visit.

Onwards to Pak Ou. The caves are split into Upper and Lower, the lower being the more interesting. 20,000 kip entrance fee. A bit of a riot broke out as we all thought our ticket included entrance, but the entrance people insisted it didn't and nobody had proof. Having booked the tour to come here, nobody was going to turn around and not go in. A bit of a scam!

The lower cave which is dug into the side of a limestone cliff, houses thousands of buddhas, mainly donated by pilgrims. Some are few centimetres high and others are 2 metres. Not much space to move around so got a bit congested, but interesting and worth a visit. The local kids as usual were around, selling heir dolls and also little cages with tiny finches in for $1. The idea being that you let the bird go as a symbol of releasing the spirit. It's also a good way of releasing tourists of their cash. A bit cynical...sorry!

Back on the boat and final stop of the tour at 'Ban Xang Khong'. Mainly known for its 'Sa wood paper' making. Girls mash the pulp and spread into frames to air dry before adding decoration with natural flowers and leaves. Very pretty designs. The village also has many traditional weavers using old looms decades or more old making silk items using natural dyes.

Lunch at a restaurant with a verandah overlooking the Mekong to finish off a nice morning. Kick back and relax.....

Bumped into a couple of friends from Sweden on my way back to the guest house, as well as someone I know from Ireland. It's a small world. You meet in the most unlikely of places.

Mission for his afternoon was to sort out something for the next few days, as I wanted to do some trekking. After bouncing beween a few tour companies I ended up at one that did what I wanted and had a guide available for tomorrow. The price was a bit too much unless I could get someone else to join me. Luck had it that an australian lady was in the office and beween us it seemed we both wanted the same sort of things, so she agreed to change her plans and join me for the next three days. Fantastic. Should be nice as we trek into some very remote areas and stay with hilltribe people in their shacks as well as help them with some work and lots of other stuff.

After a major annoyance trying to get some IT issue sorted, gave up and went to dinner. Bumped into my friends from Stockholm again so had dinner and a chat and relaxed again.

Tags: Sightseeing


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