Laos is the least populated country in South-East Asia (7 million inhabitants). In terms of population density, it is around the same level as Kyrgyzstan. There are also less tourists coming to visit Laos than its neighbours (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand). The country is known for its relaxed atmosphere and slow pace of life.
When crossing the border, non-official fees come on top of the price of the visa: you are asked to pay 2$ to get an exit stamp on the Cambodian side, 1$ in overtime fees because it’s 4.03pm, then 2$ to get an entry stamp into Laos. Ink sure is expensive in Cambodia and Laos! We stayed with a group of other travellers to be united against these extra fees. We managed to avoid the 2$ exit stamp fee (worst case they would throw us out of the country) but we could not avoid the 2$ entry stamp fee. The Lao immigration officer kept our passports in hand and kept repeating “you don’t pay me, I don’t speak to you”. The good news is that since then, we read in a local newspaper that efforts were being made by the government to put an end to this (in Laos at least).
We arrived in Vientiane in the morning after a 24h bus ride from Phnom Penh. We are happy to have discovered a new kind of sleeping bus: we were actually in a bed (although a small one) for the duration of the trip! At the bus station (a few kilometres from the city centre, as usual), a local noticed that we were surrounded by insistent tuk-tuk drivers asking for a hefty price. As he had come to pick members of his family up, he offered us to jump in the back of his truck to drop us off in the centre. So nice of him!
As soon as we arrived downtown we met up with Yann and his sister Marion. They invited us to eat a Pho (some kind of noodle soup that is widely available everywhere in South East Asia) and introduced us to their friends Ophad and Anouradj, who live in Vientiane. Anouradj generously offered to lend us his motorbike so that we could explore Laos, which we happily accepted! We spent a few days in Vientiane during which we applied for Chinese visas, went to the Buddha park and wandered around the night market along the Mekong with Yann and Marion.
We also spent time writing a blog post, visiting the Talat Sao (the morning market) and we went bowling barefoot.
Anouradj also introduced us to François, a French guy living in Vientiane who gave us tips about China, where he spent 17 years. And the chain reaction of people introducing you to more people didn’t stop there as François introduced us to Jean-Yves, who owns a travel agency and who was just back from a trip in Russia on the trans-siberian. Jean-Yves even invited us to his place, where we met his wife and two children. He gave us lots of advice about both Russia and Laos. We had a great time!
3 weeks motorcycle loop
We left Vientiane with Anouradj’s motorbike, a small 125cc Japanese motorbike with a Chinese engine and Vietnamese plates that was quite comfortable, apart from the vibrations that started to appear above 60km/h (the rear foothold was welded on the exhaust). This made us understand that doing more than 100kms per day would be difficult, but that’s okay, we wanted to take it easy!
Vientiane – Vang Vieng
We did this leg of the trip in two days, stopping on the way to eat at a floating restaurant that had been recommended by Jean-Yves. The idea is that you order your meal at the restaurant next to the river, and your meal is then brought onto the raft you rent for an hour, and you can enjoy your meal while wandering on the river. It was a nice relaxing moment! We also went to the dried fish market along the way, as well as the Nam Ngum dam (the first hydropower dam built in Laos), which created a huge artificial lake.
Vang Vieng is still known as the town where young backpackers come to party like hell and do some “tubing”: it’s basically just floating down the river on a big rubber ring, more often than not with a beer in one hand and a selfie-stick in the other. The party scene in Vang Vieng is now way quieter than it used to be (parties gone too far have led the government to close down all the bars along the river that sold beer and other substances to the tubers). However, there are still quite a lot of deaths on the river (26 last year) and as a result a lot of locals don’t dare to swim in it anymore as they consider it cursed.
Although the city itself is fairly ugly, the neighbouring countryside is absolutely stunning with its karst mountains rising abruptly in the middle of rice fields, its caves and its turquoise pools.
Vang Vieng – Kasi
From Vang Vieng we went to Nola Guest House, not far from Kasi. This guesthouse is run by a Lao family and Alex, who is from Uruguay and takes the role of interpreter and guide to the area. The atmosphere is very friendly: everyone chats merrily in the common area, next to the kitchen, while nibbling on the fruits offered by the family. In the evening, everyone eats together the common meal served on small bamboo tables. We even had the opportunity during one of those meals to try out a Lao specialty: ant eggs. In the end, it kind of looks like white beans, it’s very juicy but doesn’t taste much 🙂
While staying there, Alex told us about two hidden places: a dream-like swimming spot where we spent a really nice afternoon, and the “scary bridge”, a bamboo bridge that was fairly unstable, 12m above the river, the challenge being to dare to cross it completely.
Kasi – Luang Prabang
30 kms after Kasi, we stopped at the Hot Spring Resort located on top of a mountain. The landscape around it was superb, and for just 5000 Kip (0.6€) we had the pleasure of bathing in a natural hot spring. We slept a bit further, in Phoukhoun, in order to break the trip and reach Luang Prabang the next day. The old road 13, which goes through the mountains, was a bit difficult with the motorbike (we needed to stop and let it rest from time to time), but was really worth it for the landscapes.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage city, known for its many Buddhist temples, its French colonial buildings and its waterfalls. The city is the main tourist destination in Laos, and is often considered one of the most beautiful cities in Asia.
In the centre of town, on this portion of land surrounded by the Mekong on one side and the Nam Khan river on the other, you can find a mix between traditional Lao buildings and French colonial ones housing a lot of handicraft shops and luxury hotels. The many white temples, decorated with red and gold paint, are beautiful and particularly peaceful. It is the kind of city where it feels really good to just wander around randomly.
Phou Si mountain is a little hill located near the centre of town which offers great views of the surrounding area. It is better to start climbing it up from the south side as it has less tourists and very nice stone staircases which bring you from shrine to shrine. Climbing down the hill on the north side ends with a great view on the royal palace and the night market that is along the main street.
We bought tickets to see a show performed by the Luang Prabang Royal Ballet. Seeing the super classy name, we were expecting something rather impressive, but we ended up a bit disappointed. It was very interesting to be able to listen to traditional Lao music and see traditional dances (based on hands movements), but the young age and behaviour on stage of most of the actors/dancers as well as a few technical problems made the show resemble more a rehearsal than anything else. For example, one of the musicians was also taking care of his 2 year-old child during the show. While most of the time hidden behind his father, he would get really bored from time to time and start crawling around the stage. Unfortunately for the actors, this has consequences on the audience: there were less spectators than participants in the show. Despite all this, it was still very nice and we had a good time. At the end of the show, the actors held the pose for a couple of minutes so that everyone could take pictures 🙂
Kuang Si waterfall, one of the main attractions while in Luang Prabang, is definitely one of the best things we have seen in Laos. 25kms away from the centre of town, it is located in a rather big park where you can find a bear rescue centre (for Asian bears who have been the victims of poachers), and of course the famous waterfalls with their many levels and turquoise pools. It is possible to swim there, but we found this to be a bit of a shame as it transforms the place into a selfie contest in the water. We still found the waterfalls really stunning, and it is something you should not miss while in the area!
Luang Prabang – Nam Pouy
We decided to come back to Vientiane via a different route, along the Mekong, by taking road 4 that goes through Xayaboury. We started the day by visiting Tad Sae waterfall, which was on our way, about 15kms from Luang Prabang. We paid for the parking, the boat across the river, the entrance to the park and ended up with… nothing. Not a single drop of water, the waterfall was completely dry. We still tried to hike around for a bit but we were seriously disappointed so we turned back and went on our way.
Just before we reached Xayaboury, we saw the first signs of the upcoming Pi Mai (Lao new year, a water festival). A group of young teenagers had improvised a stand on the side of the road, and joyfully threw buckets of water on us when we passed next to them with the motorcycle. Considering the terrible heat during the day, we were actually really happy to get completely wet so we shouted “Kop Chai lai lai” (thank you very much in Lao) as we drove off.
Xayaboury itself doesn’t have anything special, it is mostly a starting point to go to the nearby elephant camp, and there isn’t much else to do. This camp looked great and seemed very ethical, but there was no space available for a week and the prices were a bit steep (minimum 2 days visit at 200€ per person or volunteering for a week for 500€). We had a few difficulties while trying to communicate as most of the locals did not speak English at all. The good thing is that it forced us to learn a few more words in Lao to be able to order food!
We went back on the road the next day to go to Nam Pouy, a village located next to a big natural protected area. We tried to go into this area with the motorbike in the hope of observing some wildlife, but the road turned out to be in too terrible a state and so we turned back after 5kms. We then went for the river, and after an exchange of gestures with friendly locals, we understood where to go to swim. We ended up in the middle of about 50 children all playing in the water, who seemed to find our presence very strange. We tried to communicate with them but without success. Some girls started to jump in the water and threw water everywhere, expecting us to take pictures of the water fight, and some boys started to wrestle in the water to show who was the strongest! After going in the water ourselves, the children were still looking at us a bit oddly: they seemed to be intrigued, amused and scared at the same time. Not knowing if we were doing something wrong or not, we decided to leave.
Nam Pouy – Vientiane
Just after we left Nam Pouy, heavy rain started to fall intermittently. This forced us to hurriedly stop several times to look for shelter. The first time we joined a group of farmers who had stopped working to take shelter as well, the second time we joined a very friendly family. In both cases, the fact that we didn’t speak Lao and that they didn’t speak English limited the communication. Once we had managed to make them understand we were French and that we were coming from Nam Pouy and going to Pak Lay (our next stop), it was hard to find ways to break the awkward silence. Despite this language barrier, they did everything they could to help us, and offered us bottled water. One thing that seemed to consistently puzzle people was Clément’s tattoo. Several times, people tried to rub it off to see if it was permanent or not!
Pak Lay is a small town along the Mekong with a few colonial buildings. Once a prosperous city thanks to its strategic location (at the crossroads between the Mekong transport route and the caravans going west), it has now fallen out of commercial interest. We went into a garage and having gestured a few things that made everyone laugh we used Google Translate, which succeeded in helping us to get a few things replaced on the motorbike which is starting to get tired 🙂
As the bridge that will eventually link Pak Lay to road 11 towards Vientiane wasn’t finished yet, we took the “ferry” to go across the Mekong. Ferry is not exactly the right word as it turned out to be 2 small boats tied together and with a wooden platform thrown on top of them. It’s basic, but you can get 3 motorbikes and a few passengers across in no time!
Along the road from Pak Lay to Vientiane, we saw the signs of a heavy deforestation. Apart from a small portion belonging to a protected area close to Pak Lay, the rest of the way looked burnt and desolate. We drove for 2 days to get close to Vientiane and stopped at the Vongkham Eco-Resort: 17kms out of the city centre, this place reminded us of the relaxed atmosphere we found at Nola Guest House. The blazing heat (according to Google: “40ºC, feels like 45°C”) being hard to bear, the communal area turned out to be perfect to do pretty much nothing while waiting for the Pi Mai to start.