We had decided to fly straight to Luang Prabang rather than get the 30-hour bus – reviews of this bus were horrific, they described bumpy, long, windy mountainous roads, often with no aircon and sometimes livestock were also being transported in the same vehicles – no thank you. Saying this, the flight over was no picnic either. Now I am an overconfident flyer, been doing it since before I can remember, but even I was a bit nervous on this flight, probably the only transport I didn’t sleep on the entire trip! The plane was a wee rickety thing with propellers, not only that but the whole time we were in the air we were also in the midst of a huge electrical storm. The turbulence was so bad they couldn’t serve any food or drink until the last 20 minutes of the flight! I’ll admit I was pretty happy when we landed!
We didn’t do much that evening, we were pretty shattered from Hanoi and so just ate, read some travel books at reception and went to bed. One weird thing did happen, however, just as we were getting out of the taxi at the hostel, one of my family friends from London walks by. Huge coincidence yes, but my mum had just climbed Mount Kenya with his mum AND my brother had just been on holiday with his brother – glad know my family (and his) talk about us so much!
The next day we got up quite early and went for a walk around the town and along the river. The whole of Luang Prabang is actually a UNESCO world heritage site. It has amazing temples and Buddha’s…. unfortunately I never want to see another temple in my life. In the afternoon we had booked a tour to go to the Kuang Si Falls and a sunset river cruise along the Mekong river.
Who doesn’t love a temple? – Me. I do not love temples.
The falls were beautiful and there are pools in which you can swim – warning, the water is freezing! At the entrance to the waterfalls, there is also a bear sanctuary, where bears that have been reduced from poaching or illegal trading are brought. It’s a good cause and the bears just looked so chilled in their hammocks and swings!
A real bear chilling in his hammock, and then Me and Nia posing with some fake ones
The stunning Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang
Despite its beauty and my happy demeanor, the water was baltic.
After the waterfall and a bit of confusion from our driver, we went on an hour cruise down the river. No one else had booked onto this tour, so not only did we have a private minivan up to the falls, we also had a private boat. The cruise wasn’t really something to write home about however, we didn’t even get to see the sunset! In hindsight, we should have just got a tuk-tuk to the falls (it would have been much cheaper) and then booked a dinner river cruise – these include a set menu of traditional Laotian food and Laotian dancers. After dinner, we went to an infamous bar in Luang Prabang called Utopia. Utopia is probably one of the most unique bars in South East Asia, although centrally located, it is hidden away along the Mekong river and consists of loads of cushions and lounges where you can just relax on the floor and have a drink and watch the sun go down. There is a strict curfew in Laos and all the bars shut around 11:30pm, there is only one place open after that – a bowling alley of all things. We never made it there just out of pure exhaustion, but I wish we had just for the experience.
Hostel: Vongprachan Backpackers Hostel – Good but basic hostel (they all are in Laos). Great central location and free breakfast, decent wifi and clean beds – all you need really! They also have an upstairs bit with a pool table and you can buy drinks out the fridge, it does shut at 11pm though. If I was to go back, I’d stay here again.
The next day we got the 9am bus to Vang Vieng. Now when you first google Vang Vieng, the first thing that comes up is about all of the tourist deaths due to the tubing – basically tourists who can’t handle their drinks and then get washed down the river. I can safely say it’s really not like that anymore – from the 12/13 bars that used to run along the river only 2 remain. The swings are gone and it’s a lot more controlled – bummer.
The bus was let’s say, less than ideal. It wasn’t one of the bus buses we were used to, it was a tiny, cramped minivan. Nia and I were the last to get in and so were stuck in the front row, Nia in the middle and me on an edge with no window or door so both of us were stuck sitting directly upright. Just to add to the uncomfortableness of the whole thing, the drive was through mountains, it was raining and foggy – you couldn’t see more than 2 feet in front of you. There were landslides happening at the sides of the road, not to mention the driver was also avoiding goats and water buffalo along the way.
When we (thankfully) arrived in Vang Vieng it was still raining. We checked in and headed straight out for some food – all of the restaurants had pillows and loungers so we stayed there for quite some time. Vang Vieng is a tiny town in the middle of rural Laos so there isn’t much to in the actual town apart from the tubing, so we had planned to have a quiet night. It started very innocently with some pool and beers, but ended up speaking to a group in the hostel and found out that if you plan it correctly each bar has an hour of free whiskey or beer so you could drink for free all night. For example, Sakura had free whiskey from 8-9, then Viva had free beer from 9-10, and then back to Sakura for more free whiskey 10-11 – then you actually go back to Viva again as it’s probably the nicer of the two; can’t really ask for more than that!
For our one full day in Vang Vieng, we obviously went tubing. I was really looking forward to it, it was the only really fun thing we had planned for the whole of Laos. The hostel we stayed in had a really good set up for it. You just met at the reception at 12:30 and they organize a tuk-tuk to come pick you, and anyone else in the hostel that’s tubing that day, to take you to the tubing office, you pay, get your tube and then the tuk-tuk takes you to the river. A little bit of advice if you’re planning on going – DONT TAKE ANYTHING. It will get wet. Get a dry bag and bring money and a waterproof camera (or GoPro) if you have one, nothing else – leave your phone at the hostel! We wore bikinis and t-shirt, not even shorts or shoes, and although this resulted in a few cuts on our toes and the soles of our feet as we scrambled to get out of the river at the end of the tubing, it was worth it not to lose them.
Only 3 other people from our hostel were tubing the same day as us but they were a good laugh and good company. When we got the river we actually had no idea what we were doing, but luckily some Laotian man was shouting and beckoning us over to this metal raft on a wire which takes you over to the first bar – you don’t even get in the tube or river before they get you on the beer!
When we reached the first bar it was quite quiet but there were already drinking games underway. We took it quite slow, to begin with, we were a little bit on the ropey side and although I fully believe in hair of the dog, it was still a struggle. After a few beerlao, we were feeling much better and got involved in musical chairs – or musical tubes. As there are now only 2 bars along the river you have to stay at the first one for quite a while, we had met a few people that didn’t know that and then had got to the second bar and realized that was it! As there weren’t that many people tubing that day, maybe around 30? It actually created a really nice atmosphere where you met everyone and then just spend the whole day as a large group.
We spent about 2 hours at the first bar and once everyone was relatively jolly we jumped in the tubes for the first time and started floating down the river. The second bar is only a 10 or 15-minute tube down the river and everyone tries to hold onto each other but to make one big raft. Somehow, Nia and I ended up on the wrong side of the river and were left frantically kicking to get over to the bar. The people at the bar throw lines out with water bottles attached to the end to pull you in. You just have to grab them and hold on for dear life otherwise you’re a goner and you’d be left doing the 45-minute float down to the endpoint on your own!
We made it (just) and spent the rest of the afternoon at this bar. It started raining, but if you’re already wet from the river and in swimsuits it actually just made it even more fun. After the second bar you just float all the way down to the end point, everyone is in a great mood and the scenery is stunning – what a better way to see rural Laos than in a tube, happily floating, a beer in one hand and someone else’s tube in the other.
Nia and I ended up missing the end of the tubing and a man literally had to run down the side of the river and throw more lines out for us to catch. We then had to scramble up the bank onto a pile of broken tiles – this is how we cut our feet we’re pretty sure, although I can’t say we noticed at the time. Apparently, there is a bar next to where you hand your tubes back in where everyone goes, but that went completely over our heads – I had actually gone to get food, they sell these devious sandwiches at the side of the roads and ended up losing everyone. Thankfully the man at the tube shop walked me to the end of the road and pointed out our hostel because everyone had left me!
We didn’t make it out that night. We had gone for some food – a very disgusting pizza actually, and Nia had managed to fall asleep at the restaurant. It was a fantastic day and I wish we’d been able to stay one more day and do it all over again. There are actually loads of things to do around Vang Vieng in addition to the tubing, there is rock climbing and loads of other outdoor activities which are now being pushed by the Laos government to try and rid Vang Vieng of its backpacker’s party town reputation. We didn’t have the time (or the money) to do any of these things but I wish we had.
Hostel: Real backpackers – this is pretty much where everyone stays. Again, it’s quite basic but the vibe is nice and everyone you meet is on the same page as you. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, their set up for the tubing is good and it’s really easy way to meet people. There is a real backpackers 1 and 2, we stayed in 1 and we were glad as people in 2 said there was no real atmosphere.
The next afternoon we got the bus (thankfully it was a real bus this time) to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We’d been told that there is literally nothing to do there apart from temples which did not fill us with much joy, but obviously, it was a place we had to go visit. When we arrived we realized that there really was nothing to do… so we googled best restaurants in Vientiane and found a tiny steak/BBQ place right next to the hostel called Ray’s Grille Laos. Weirdly enough the top 5 were all in walking distance and that kind of told me that these probably weren’t the best restaurants, just ones that backpackers and managed to find and thought were alright.
To be fair, the food was actually really good. They only had about 6 things on the menu and you could see the food being made. I went for a Philly cheese steak (yes, I know, very bad of me) because all the reviews said it was fantastic and I was not disappointed. The hostel was pretty quiet so Nia and I just played a few rounds of pool and went to bed (the reason we had started playing so much of it was that we are shocking at it. We didn’t improve).
Beerlao – probably one of my favorite beers I’d tried while away, and Nia attempting to play pool
On our last full day of our travel, we hired bikes and cycled around the city. We went to the river as obviously, we were standing in Laos, but on the other side, a stone’s throw away is Thailand. After we’d done that, well, we had nothing to do. We ended up just spending the day sorting out our bags and putting everything in order for the 40-hour journey home we were starting the next day, it was relatively depressing, to say the least.
In the evening we went to the night market to buy a few last presents. A guy we’d met in Vang Vieng was staying the same hostel so he tagged along. While we were out it started absolutely chucking it down and by the time we had got to the restaurant for dinner, we were soaked through!
I know we should have got Asian food on our last night, and I do feel guilty about this, but the top-rated restaurant in Vientiane is a pizza place called PDR pizza, only a 5-minute walk from the hostel. This food was actually amazing, they also had this garlic sauce which I’m pretty sure was just grated garlic cloves in oil but it tasted so damn good. One of the owners was actually sat at the table next to us and we got chatting with him and his wife. The guy was Italian and he and his brother had both come out to Laos traveling, met the love of their lives there and opened up this Pizzeria. We wangled some free limoncello out of it as well! So, although not a very traditionally Laotian meal, it was a great last night.
Hostel: Dream home hostel – Again, this is just where everyone stays. Clean rooms and good aircon, free breakfasts and a pool.
The trip back to the UK was a long one. First it was an hour flight from Vientiane to Bangkok, a 12 hour layover in Bangkok (we actually went to the cinema and back in this time), 6 hours to Doha, 7 hours to London and although this was the end of Nia’s trip, with both of her parents turning up to welcome her home, I had another 5 hour wait in Heathrow and finally got back to Edinburgh 46 hours after leaving the hostel in Laos. Just to add to the stress of this whole journey, when we were queuing to check in in Bangkok, we heard loud screaming coming from the floor below us – I genuinely thought there was some form of attack occurring, people were stood still, most reaching for their bags in case this was the real deal. Thankfully the screaming stopped and we later discovered it was, in fact, a Korean boy bad which had just arrived and it was only a gaggle of teenage girls which had made my life flash before my eyes. Mild depression did set in as we landed in Heathrow to rain and 14 degrees and I couldn’t think for the life of me why I had even bothered to come back, but the thought of my own bed, a wardrobe, and some clean clothes did lift my spirits a tiny bit.
And now I’m back. Back to wearing socks and shoes again, back to paying through the roof for everything – just back to reality in general. The looming dread of trying to find somewhere to live in London and a job, even though it’s all temporary has fuelled my need to get back out there. Backpack Bradie is now on pause until I start my next adventure; New Zealand and Australia at the start of next year – I cannot wait.