We have visited Asia for either work or leisure since 2000, but it has taken us 19 years before we made it to Laos. It is landlocked, communist, studded with limestone cliffs, gilded Buddhist temples, riddled with caves as well as being home to rare wildlife. As we don’t have the backpacker’s luxury of boundless time and could only spend a week in Laos, we decided to focus on where we really wanted to go which was the city of Luang Prabang. With long distances and less-than-great roads, the dilemma was how to visit without just flying in and out of the city’s airport. So we decided to fly into Vientiane, drive to Vang Vieng where we would spend three nights and then travel on by road to Luang Prabang for three nights. Finally we’d take the slow boat up the Mekong stopping for the night at Pakbeng, before arriving at Huay Xai where we crossed the border back into Thailand.
You can get a 30 day tourist visa on arrival or, as we did, purchase one before hand online, it’s a little more costly but you don’t have to queue at the airport on arrival. The currency of Laos is the KIP, and you get approx 11,500 kip to the pound. We flew into Wattay International Airport from Bangkok on Thai Smile and we had arranged transport to Vang Vieng via the Amari Hotel. The driver was waiting for us at the airport for what was around a 4 hour drive and, to be fair, the roads were not too bad, lovely scenery and we stopped for lunch half way so, all in all, it was a pleasant drive.
Vang Vieng is certainly not the backpacker mecca, party central it once was, as it is now desperately trying to reinvent itself as a holiday destination for families and couples mainly from Korea and China. We stayed here for three nights at the Amari Hotel. We had a great view from the hotel room balcony over the Nam Song River, and I have to say the view is stunning, especially as the sun sets into the mountains. The Amari did have the prime spot and was probably the best hotel in town, our only gripe was that it was very noisy – does the lift really have to bing bong as it stops at each floor? Vang Vieng is certainly worth a visit if you are travelling through Laos, there are lots of different activities available, and so you should never be bored. Tubing is still the number one activity, however at our age we decided a kayak was a better option, which we rented from TCK rentals. We had a guide and the slow paddle took around 2 hours to complete the 8km, you can stop at the various bars on the way, but to be honest it didn’t seem right to be in such a wonderful picturesque location, to be stopping at the neon lite bars pumping out house music. You will also see loads of shops who rent out buggies, we rented one for 4 hours which allowed us to drive “the loop” and visit all 3 lagoons, you can do the loop on a scooter but I wouldn’t recommended it on those roads, remember to take a dust mask and sun glasses as the roads do churn up a lot of dust.
Vang Vieng’s dining scene leaves a lot to be desired, in fact I would call it non-existent, most of the restaurants churn out the same mediocre burgers, pizza and pasta. The Lao food is equally disappointing, it says it all that the best food we found was at Gary’s Irish Bar. We were told the best restaurant in town was the Happy Mango, which was across the road from Gary’s Irish Bar. The small restaurant was crowded every night and always had a queue of people waiting for a table, so we never got to try it.
We arranged transport to Luang Prabang via the hotel, journey time is approx. 4.5 hours and the scenery on-route is spectacular and the view at the half way point is truly amazing but beware, the road is a little scary at times and in serious need of repair.
Luang Prabang is everything that Vang Vieng isn’t. It is a picturesque old town, surrounded by limestone hills and is where the Khan and Mekong rivers meet. Founded in the 8th century it is a mixture of Buddhist temples, traditional Lao and French colonial buildings, it has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1995. It’s charming character, wonderful buildings and spectacular scenery has made it the must visit destination in Laos.
We stayed for three nights at the Villa Maly Boutique Hotel which was once the home to the Lao Royal Family. Today it is an exquisite boutique hotel surrounded by a lush, abundant tropical garden. The staff were excellent and couldn’t be more friendly or helpful. It was a great choice and we would recommended it, it is also only a 5 minute walk to Sisavangvong Road, home to the nightly market. It is also a foodie’s paradise with great traditional Lao cuisine, classical French and an infusion of both. The choice of restaurants and different cuisines on offer was exceptional – Excellent coffee with French bakery’s and an abundance of restaurants. We stumbled across The Belle Rive Terrace Restaurant as we were walking along the river, and decided to stop for lunch. What a great find right on the river with splendid views, great service, great food and a good mix of Local and Western dishes. It is definitely worth a visit. Other restaurants we ate in and can recommended are Coconut Garden on Sisavangvong Road at the end of the night market, a nice setting with great local cuisine.
The Main St Bar and Grill is a well-designed restaurant at the start of the Night Market, it has a terrace and air-con, great service selling a wide choice of good Local and Western food it also has a great cocktail list for sundowners.
L’Elephant restaurant has become a Luang Prabang institution it is a combination of tropical and colonial architecture. We were seated on the veranda. The food is of the highest quality, French with Asian infusion and a wonderful wine list. Service was excellent it is truly a must visit. It is on Kounxoua Road, near the river but every Tuk Tuk driver will be able to take you, there is always an abundance of them outside to take you back to your hotel.
Apart from the town itself, Kuang Si Waterfall is the other major attraction with umpteen tours on offer, the concierge recommended that we include the Buffalo and Butterfly farms on our private tour. We were a little sceptical but he insisted that both were worth a visit and on the way, so with nothing to lose off we went.
The first stop was the Buffalo dairy, to be honest we expected to see a couple of Water Buffalo and be on our way in 5 mins. What we discovered was a working farm run by 3 expats with an aim to improve the rural prosperity, welfare, nutrition, and health of the local population, with a focus on buffalo farming, and childhood nutrition. They achieve these goals by improving local agriculture through: better genetics, increased vaccinations, animal husbandry, veterinary care, and a nutrition program aimed at reducing the 44 percent malnutrition rate in Laos. The project is supported by the on-site production of dairy products, tourism, and donations – http://www.laosbuffalodairy.com/home. Not only will you have enjoyable few hours, you will also donating to a great cause, oh and by the way the ice cream is fantastic.
Kuang Si Butterfly Park is a project run by a passionate Dutch couple. Their mission is to create a research centre studying and publishing information about Laos butterflies, host plants and their preservation as well as teaching local kids about the environmental issues in Laos.
You will find the Australian run charity ‘Free the Bears’ located just inside the Waterfall National Park Entrance. The sanctuary opened in 2003, their aim is that as long as there are bears in need, Free the Bears will strive to stop their suffering. Free the Bears look after Moon bears (Asiatic Black bears). As well as rescue and rehabilitation, they continue to tackle the threats to Asia’s bears. Besides habitat loss, one of the main threats to bears in Asia is the illegal wildlife trade. Where people extract their bile for use in traditional medicine https://freethebears.org/pages/origins
You can help this worthy cause by making a donation at the Rescue Centre or online, our as we did by purchasing T-shirts sold onsite.
There are many boats that cruise up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai stopping overnight at Pakbeng. You can get the slow public boat and book your own accommodation. We decided to splash out a little and book the one night premium package via www.shompoocruise.com
We travelled in December and pick up is 7am, you’ll need to be prepared as it was 8°C in the morning. The boat does have blankets, but believe me you need more than shorts and T-shirt, it is definitely long trousers and North Face jacket weather until about midday. We couldn’t fault the service and the food the two young girls prepared on the boat was exceptional. There was also snacks, cold drinks, beer and wine on sale. However it is a long journey. Day 1 is 7am till 5pm and I have to admit the scenery on route was spectacular, but it does get a bit same / same after a few hours. We stopped and spent the night at Prabeng where we stayed at the Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge. It was a nice hotel run by a French Couple. Great service with a wonderful view over the river, the only downside was that the Elephants come down to bathe by the river at 7.30am – but we were back in the boat and on our way by 7am. We didn’t arrive at Huay Xai until 5pm, by the time it took to get through customs then across the bridge and enter Thailand it was 6.30pm. We had a taxi waiting so we arrived at our hotel in Chiang Rai around 8pm.
So, our overall assessment of Laos is that it was certainly worth a visit, and we would definitely return to Luang Prabang in the future. If it is your first time Vang Vieng is worth a visit, but I personally don’t think it has a second visit in it, this may change when the high speed railway opens. As for the slow boat, it was an experience but not one we would repeat. So think next time it will be fly into and out of Luang Prabang.