Laos

In the tubing no more!

Despite having a really good time in Phonsavan, we were very happy to head south to slightly warmer climes. It took around 7 hours to Vang Vieng, including a stop to change an exploded tyre, and we arrived in the early afternoon. Annoyingly, we were dropped about 2km outside the town (damn that tuk tuk mafia), and after a quick look around and some excellent haggling from Law we had a nice hotel room for about 50 cents more than the Phonsavan ice box.

Tyres shouldn't look like this...

Tyres shouldn’t look like this…

Vang Vieng is a strange place. It became infamous as a backpacker paradise a few years ago, chiefly because you could hire a tractor tyre inner tube and float down the beautiful scenic river, which happened to be lined with bars. People would spend all day getting free shots and drinking buckets of Lao-Lao whiskey, jumping and rope-swinging into the water before stumbling back into town. With fairly low health and safety standards, quite a few people died doing this! It all changed last year though, with a government crackdown on the bars and now Vang Vieng is held up as an example of how not to develop a tourist town to the rest of Laos.

Outside the hotel

Outside the hotel

It feels a bit soulless now, with the vast majority of the buildings being guesthouses or western restaurants. An odd (and awesome for us) side affect is that a huge number of bars in town show episodes of Friends, Family Guy and South Park on endless loops! Despite being high season, the place was quiet, and it seems now to be stuck as not quite a full-blown party town and not quite a cultural site.

'Friends' on a loop in every other bar - amazing!

‘Friends’ on a loop in every other bar – amazing!

The scenery is amazing though, with huge limestone karst peaks along the river and rice paddies all over the place. On the first afternoon we went and booked a days kayaking and cave tubing for the next day, figuring we had do something like that and agreeing not to drink too much whilst on the water. We started the day with a trip an underwater cave, which was amazing experience. Sitting in a tube, we were given head torches and then we were in the freezing river, pulling ourselves into the pitch black, 300 metre long cave by ropes tied to the ceiling. Stalactites dripped from the roof, and we wound our way through until the rope stopped, before paddling on further to the end. Back outside, the sunshine was a welcome relief.

Going underground...

Going underground…

In the afternoon, we kayaked about 10km down the river toward town, admiring the countryside. After navigating a few rapids (a couple of people in our group capsized!), we joined up with where the tubing still starts. Despite all but 3 bars being closed down, the remains of the bars still dot the riverside, which mars the view a bit. We stopped at “Last Bar”, an imaginative title for the last bar of the river, and whilst I had a beer Law had a Lao-Lao and coke.

Views so amazing, I can't look where I'm going...

Views so amazing, I can’t look where I’m going…

The coolest chick at Last Bar

The coolest chick at Last Bar

By the time we got back into the town, we were pretty happy spending the evening watching episodes of Friends whilst Mrs. H felt the effects of drinking whiskey in the sun!There isn’t masses else to do in Vang Vieng, so we spent the next day wandering around, sunbathing and watching Friends in the bars, and sorting out the onward travel to our last stop in Laos, Vientiane.

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The Plain of Jars

After a few days in Luang Prabang, we headed into the centre of Laos and into the mountains. The bus to Phonsavan took 8 hours and as soon as we stepped off, we noticed the difference in temperature. We are now 1500m above sea level and the night time temperatures are around 3-4 degrees – it’s not freezing, but we’re in SE Asia, and we’re not prepared! Luckily starting in Russia means we have been carrying round useless jackets and jumpers for 4 months which finally made it out of the bags again!

Sam prepares for a chilly night in Phonsavan

Sam prepares for a chilly night in Phonsavan

Phonsavan is a bit of a strange, quiet town, only really visited by a few tourists who come to see the Plain of Jars. There are a few agents selling tours, but with limited numbers of people in town it looked like it could be an expensive day and that we’d have to get a private guide to take us. Luckily we made friends with some Germans and an Italian so managed to book a tour together for the next day, before having a nice dinner and trying to remember our A-level Deutsch (sehr gut).

The Plain of Jars is around 2,500 years old, similar in age and feel to Easter Island in Chile or Stonehenge.

The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars

The jars are around 5ft high and are thought to be ancient funeral urns, although not a lot is known about them. There are hundreds scattered across this part of Laos but we visited three sites. They were amazing to see, the sites are very atmospheric with beautiful views and surroundings.

Views from Site 2 of the Plain of Jars

Views from Site 2 of the Plain of Jars

They are also fascinating because they are the site of a huge amount of destruction during the 60s and 70s. The Americans dropped millions of tonnes of bombs in Laos during the “secret war” making it the most bombed country in the world and the Plain of Jars area was the most bombed part of the country. Many of the jars are damaged, fallen over and the site is full of bomb craters.

MAG have cleared the sites of UXOs

MAG have cleared the sites of UXOs

The area is also covered in unexploded bombs, and many local people still die every year. In Phonsevan we visited the MAG (Mines Advisory Service) centre who are a British charity working to help clear the area and where we watched a fascinating and sad documentary. There are so many bombs it will take decades more to make the country completely safe.

Bombs that have been collected from the local area

Bombs that have been collected from the local area

The next day we headed south to the much warmer Vang Vieng and home of the infamous backpacker sport of tubing. Although it was a bit out of the way and really cold, we were really glad we made the trip to Phonsavan.

The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Write about Laos

We made it. The border crossing was a bit painful, but we did get across and back up the river in time for the slow boat. Leaving the guesthouse at 8.30, I was sat on top of the bags in the back of a pick up truck, with the hostel owner chatting to me and getting excited about the new border. The two towns we were going to and from are just a couple of hundred metres apart across the river, and yet we had to travel around 15km south, across the bridge and back north.

The brand new border control

The brand new border control

After paying 40 baht for the ride to the bridge (they wanted 50, but the older Dutch couple we were with, and who were doing the trip mainly to write about it on travelfish, were having none of that), we queued up and 3 people took our passport details in order to get the 25 baht bus across the new bridge. Getting stamped out of Thailand was quick and easy, and then we rode the bus through no-mans-land to the new border checkpoint on the Laos side. It was fairly disorganised, with groups piling off the bus, and then mobbing around a small office. There were no signs up, so it took a while to work out which way to go, but we finally got it right; queue for forms, go away and fill out the forms, queue back up to hand them in, wait for everyone’s passports to be passed around the small office with 5 people copying things out, then pay the $35 for the visa. Finally, we just had to deal the “tuk tuk mafia” outside, and haggle down from 80 baht per person to around 40.

How many people does it take to sell a bus ticket...

How many people does it take to sell a bus ticket…

Welcome to Laos

Welcome to Laos

A flat tyre as well... Come on Laos!

A flat tyre as well… Come on Laos!

Eventually though, we made it to the slow boat port in Huay Xai, and were actually among the first people there. The ticket office staff were pretty relaxed about the new border situation, and just laughed when I asked what time the boat would leave. It finally left around 2 hours later than normal, and we were off into Laos down the Mekong.

The slow boats

The slow boats

Home for two days

Home for two days

The slow boats are long, thin, cargo and passenger boats that float down the river at a relaxed speed, hence the name. Around 80 people were on ours, mostly tourists, and it was a mix of independent and group travellers. It seems like car or bus seats have been taken out of their original homes and placed in rows up the boat, and there isn’t a huge amount to do other than sit and watch the spectacular scenery pass by. Law described it as a cross between Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park – she is awesome.

Jungles, mountains and bamboo villages dot the shore, and the six hours passed quite pleasantly. Just after dark on the first day the boat stops at a small village called Pakbeng, where touts practically jump aboard to get you into their guesthouse – we had a plan though, so while I waited for the bags Law zipped up the hill to get a nice room for a good price. The second day we woke up early and headed off around 9 down the river, and it was more of the same. Amazing countryside, and a good opportunity to read a lot.

Orcs patrol the eastern shore

Orcs patrol the eastern shore

Snug

Snug

We arrived almost at Luang Prabang at about 5.30, but actually stopped about 10km up river from the town. This is a fairly recent thing, where they now drop off all the passengers and then charge an extra 20,000 kip (about £1.50) for a tuk tuk into the city. It’s clearly a scam, but there is an actual ticket office and this is just what happens now. I’d read about it online so we were a bit prepared, but a lot of people were mad and tried to stick it out on the boat until it moved. We saw one couple later who’d waited another 30 mins and still ended up getting the tuk tuk.

Luang Prabang is a very nice city. It’s another odd of mix European cafe style architecture (thanks France) and temples and pagodas. It is a bit pricier here than elsewhere in Laos, but it’s a cool place to just wander round in and the market is full of great cheap street food. Beer Lao is also very cheap, and it might be my favourite beer of Asia so far. As well as visiting the various Wats and temples, we’ve also been to Kuang Si falls, an amazing set of pools and waterfalls outside the city – the water is bright turquoise and even the rain didn’t take away from it’s beauty.

Luang Prabang, a lot of temples

Luang Prabang, a lot of temples

Tiny dumplings on a stick! Night Market

Tiny dumplings on a stick! Night Market

After a couple of days chilling in LP, we made our way to the bus station to spend the day winding around the mountains to get to Phonsavan and the famous and mysterious Plain of Jars.

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Falls

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: