Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane, Laos
February 23nd – 25th 2010

Left Luang Prabang early in the morning to catch a 9:30 am bus to Vientiane. Luckily for me, they still had seats on the tourist bus, which is more comfortable and takes a shorter time than a local bus, although more expensive of course. It was quite a scenic journey through winding roads in the mountains to straight roads that went right through rustic Lao villages. One thing I noticed is that there was a lot of new construction (mainly home building) going on. In fact, it’s not surprising to find a relatively modern brick single-story home (in pretty peach pink no less, which is THE most popular color in Laos for these homes) standing right next to an older wooden village shack, with a backdrop of acres of rice-paddy fields. It adds even more charm to an already charming environment.I wish I could’ve taken pictures but one thing I’ve learned about taking pictures from a moving bus or train with windows, they never ever turn out good (might be different if I had an SLR that had no shutter lag).

After 9 hours, the bus reached Vientiane, after passing through Vang Vieng a couple of hours ago. It was around 8 pm so I had to go find myself a place to stay. A lot of the cheap budget places were full so I had to resort to staying in a more expensive hotel ($19/night) but I figured, it’s nice to splurge on a night at a fancy looking place once in a blue moon (yes, I call $19/night in Laos splurging). The nice thing was that it had A/C and a TV so I could catch the Man Utd/Marseille game, which I had to wake up at 2:30 am for, and resulted in a bore-draw. I ended up checking out the next day and finding accommodation at a cheaper place across the street, same deal, but cheaper. Or as the Thais and Lao say, “Same same but different” (it’s a popular saying around these part of the world from what I’ve observed).

Vientiane itself doesn’t look like a big-city capital when compared to cities like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. It’s relatively small and definitely has an administrative look to it when compared to Luang Prabang, although it does maintain a relaxed and calm feeling. As in anywhere else in South East Asia, lots of temples around but I only visited one and a half (one was closed so I was there but not inside). There was an Asian version of the Arc d’ Triomph as well, which was really cool because it had Asian-inspired designs on it despite it trying to imitate the AdT. The National Museum was a bore, definitely not worth going if you ask me. It was inside an old building and it was hot inside and all the displays were old and dusty and littered with thousands of pictures of Lao politicians from their history. It’s not set up very well.

I ran across a food festival going on during that weekend I was there. Cameras and reporters were everywhere, trying to interview some of the vendors there. I got to see some Lao foods that I have never seen elsewhere but they didn’t look like they catered to the Western palate so maybe that’s why they are never found in the main traveler areas. There was a display serving fried cricket so I decided to take a stab at it. I overcame the mental block surprisingly quickly. The trick is to close your eyes and pop it in your mouth and chew away. It tastes nothing like it looks. Since it’s fried and salted, it tasted (drum roll) fried and salty. No juices or anything. There was a plate of friend grasshoppers next to it but it was all eaten up, I guess those Lao people like grasshoppers.


Food-wise, I tried some pastries from some of the French bakeries in the area. I also spent one dinner eating at an outdoor “restaurant”. The “kitchen” was a street stall with all the ingredients displayed in the open, the main one being fish. There was a simple grill set up for the cooking. I had grilled fish and vegetables but it wasn’t that great to be honest.

I decided two nights was enough in Vientiane. The next day, I would have to catch a bus to the border to get back into Thailand.

p/s : Lost 2 pairs of good socks when the laundry place didn’t give it back to me and I forgot to check for them. I just hate losing valuables.

Few more Vientiane Pics.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos
February 18th – 22nd 2010

I decided to leave Chiang Mai after only one night. It was a bit boring for me but to be fair, maybe I didn’t give it a fair chance. Perhaps, a day or two more might’ve changed my outlook.

Regardless, I took a local bus to Chiang Rai and arrived after 3 hours. I then took (hung on to the back railing really, which was quite fun) to a “minibus” which took a bunch of travelers to another bus station where we all caught a bus to Chiang Khong, a journey which took another 2 hours. Chiang Khong was the Thai town bordering Huay Xai in Laos, both separated by the Mekong River. Stayed there a night before going through Thai immigration, then taking a very short boat trip across the river to Laos.

(Travelers making the border run.)

The slow-boat to Luang Prabang was quite a trip. It cost $25 for a trip spread over 2 days. Each day, we would travel down the Mekong River for about 6-7 hours, stopping at various points to drop off Laotians in their remote riverside villages. It was leisurely and I spent most of my time reading or napping. We stopped in Pak Beng, a small village town populated with many modern guesthouses due to the constant traffic of 1-night-stay travelers.

(The slow-boats all lined up.)

(Inside the slow-boat.)

(Shores of Pak Beng @ 6 am.)

The next morning, we continued our 8-hour journey to Luang Prabang. Paying attention to my surroundings in between chapters of my book (George Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones’), I noticed a lot of forests and large rock formations in the water. The Mekong was flanked by largely untouched white sand beaches. These parts have only known the Laotians living in small fishing villages here and there. Here and there, they were fishing, gem-sifting, and clothes-washing. Kids were playing in the waters and diving off small wooden boats.

It was a relief when we finally got to Luang Prabang. After securing accommodation, I retired for the night. The next day, I rented a bicycle and went to familiarize myself with Luang Prabang. I went to visit Wat Xieng Thong, the most famous temple in Luang Prabang.

(Doorway of Wat Xieng Thong.)

I found a nice village on the opposite side of the Nam Ou river (which is a small river that feeds into the Mekong) which had several travelers sunbathing on its river-shores while Laotian kids were playing in the waters. It was a very hot day and I was tempted to join them.

I found a nice little shop by the side of the road selling noodle-soup so I had that for lunch. Noodle-soup is apparently a popular breakfast food for Laotians. Nothing out of the ordinary for me as it looked like noodle-soup from Malaysia as well but with a slight variation somewhere, perhaps in the broth mixture. The Laotians always have a ton of condiments and seasonings on their tables and it was a mystery as to which combination would provide the best taste. I just threw in a dash of fish sauce and some chili for a little kick.

(Rice noodle soup, popular breakfast/lunch item among the locals.)

I topped lunch off with a visit for one of the many French bakeries in the area. I visited the night market in the evening to see what the locals were selling; mostly things for travelers, from t-shirts to fermented liquor with snakes or scorpions inside.

Several random things that are sold in the night markets:

The next day, I took a 2-hour boat ride to visit the famous Pak Ou caves, with a stop at the ‘Whiskey Village’ in between (Lao whiskey is plenty strong, some containing 50% alcohol). The caves themselves were interesting. Each one was filled with small Buddha statues. The legend goes that any statues the locals took and brought back to their villages would miraculously find its way back to the caves.

(Inside one of the Pak Ou caves.)

(Little Buddha statues everywhere.)

That evening, I decided to check out the Lao traditional song/dance at the local theatre. Part of the program included a segment from the ‘Ramayana’, an old Hindu text. Actually, I say Hindu because it’s famous in India and I’m not sure how the legend made its way into these parts of the world.

I decided to visit the famous Tat Kuang Si waterfalls the next day. The ride there took 40 minutes in a minivan but in between, we got to see local village life and the beautiful Lao countryside, filled with rice paddy fields. The waterfalls themselves were real pretty, especially the water, which was truly turquoise-colored. Near the waterfalls, many tour groups were having their packed lunches while most of the foreigners who wanted to swim congregated around a portion of the lower part of the falls which had a swing-rope and a place to jump off. I laughed when some girls were scared to jump off the ledge, which was barely 6-8 feet. I have jumped off 40 feet before and let me tell you, *that* was scary. The Americans there had brought a football so several people were taking turns to swing off the tree-rope and catching a football mid-air.

(One of the pools in Tat Kuang Si.)

On the way back, we stopped by another touristy stop, a village that sold all kinds of tourist souvenirs but filled with poor village kids, begging us to buy their simple bracelets. The faces on some of them were pitiful. A little girl carrying a baby kept asking us for money. And when one of the girls in our group pulled out a bag of preserved mangos to distribute to the kids, they were like piranhas. She eventually gave one of them the packet and a group of 10-12 kids fought over it until one boy emerged victorious and shared the spoils with his friends.

That evening, I got to see the sunset at the top of Phu Si hill, a wonderful experience as I don’t remember ever seeing a sun truly go down, bit by bit, until it eventually disappears behind mountains.

(Overview of Luang Prabang.)

I rounded off my stay in Luang Prabang by taking it easy my last day, doing nothing but riding a hot-pink bicycle with a nice pink basket in front, complete with a Hello Kitty keychain. I did this because the other day, I had joked with the bicycle rental place that in America, men can’t be seen riding pink bicycles (I rented a black mountain bike the first time around). They were saying that in Laos, no one cares about that. But anyway, that day, I had two choices, baby blue or hot pink. I figured, why not, have a laugh about this, take a picture, go marauding the town like a bauce. Got to see the sunset again (this time, from shores of the Mekong, enjoying a strong Lao coffee, which was truly different from any other coffee I’ve ever had).

(I know I look cool, no need to tell me.)

Would my next stop be Vang Vieng or do I go straight to Vientiane? I think the latter. I don’t really want to go tubing that bad anyway.

Luang Prabang Pics