Although I have spent the last few years living and working in Asia, I had never made it to Laos. It is not on the radar for work projects as it is still far behind the more developed parts of Asia. That said, Laos has certainly been a place I've wanted to visit for ages, and finally made it earlier this year.
Corey and I spent the first few months of 2016 in Langkawi, Malaysia. There are previous blogs related to our stay. Please take a look. Langkawi is a lovely island and wonderful holiday destination, particularly if you are already in SE Asia. I was sorry that Corey's job opportunity came to an end but the down time gave us the chance to explore Laos while we reset our compasses.
From Langkawi we traveled to Phuket to repack and then flew to Nong Khai, Thailand. We were blessed to stay with a great friend, Fon, and her father, and stage ourselves for the journey into Laos. Nong Khai is across the Mekong River from Laos on the Northern border of Thailand. We also came back through Nong Khai to spend more time with Fon and our friend from Portland, Gene. If you want to see the 'Real Thailand,' skip Phuket completely and head straight to Northern Thailand. It is truly engaging, full of interesting things to see and do.
Thank you Fon, Pa, and Gene for everything!!
Vientiane is a lovely city with a strong colonial heritage. It is the current capital of Laos. We rented a no-frills room with A/C for less than $20 USD and enjoyed walking around in the older part of town. In particular, we viewed Wat Si Saket, a temple built in 1818 which hosts over 2000 Buddha images.
Starting in Vientiane we savored the French influence in Laos- with our stomachs, splurging one night for a French dinner at La Cage du Coq in Vientiane. If you are there, go!!!
We spent one night in Vientiane and then jumped on a "VIP Bus" to Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng felt like a town from the wild, wild, west. I can't think of a better description. The streets are mostly dirt and rocks and it has a rough and tumble attitude. The bus drops you at the local station and you can walk into town or take a tuk-tuk for an inflated rate as it's only about 1 km to the tourist area from the Southern Bus Station. From the Northern Bus Station it's worth getting a ride but ANY ride, service, or goods in Laos are worth bargaining over.
Vang Vieng has a reputation as a party town. It has calmed quite a bit as town's Achille's Heel was the tubing venue. Large truck inner tubes can be rented and used to float down the river for a few hours. In the past there were multiple bars that you could tuck in to for beers, shots, and more. This resulted in more then one injury and death of young back packers which then caused the government to put pressure on the town to tone it down. Currently, from where we were dropped off by truck to enter the river and float back to town, there are only 3 bars still open. It's a much quieter scene, or at least it was when we were there. The weather was H-O-T so the tubing was a wonderful way to cool down and enjoy the river. I would highly recommend it. Don't forget your sunscreen!
Food and lodging in Vang Vieng runs the gamut. You can rent a hostel room for a few dollars US or a nice hotel room for closer to $100 USD. Meals can be as cheap as 20,000 kip (8,000/1USD) for a massive french bread sandwich with a variety of fillings and more for hotel meals. We opted for a rustic bungalow across the river for $15/night. We had a bathroom with a western toilet and A/C for that price and a great view of the mountains from our hammock. We usually don't do A/C but the heat and humidity were stifling.
We hiked a straight up a limestone karst for a look out view of VV, explored a huge cave, and rented a motor bike to see the areas nearby including the Blue Lagoon. I really enjoyed Vang Vieng and it's rugged atmosphere. I could almost live there but it's a bit far from a beach.
Luang Prabang ranks highly on my list of favorite SE Asian cities. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and lies 300 km (190 miles) North of Vientiane in North Central Laos. It used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Laos until the communist take over in 1975. The community was named Luang Prabang in 698 CE/AD when it was conquered by a Tai (not Thai) Prince. It is famous as a Buddhist spiritual center with many temples and monasteries. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luang_Prabang
Personally, I loved the spiritual, artsy vibe it exudes from every ancient building, temple, and walkway. The oldest part of town is nestled on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
We spent a few nights in LP and rented a motor bike so we could explore nearby areas up and down the main road. Specifically, we rode the bike up to access a Pak Ou Cave Temple across the Mekong. It is built in a cave and is heavily visited by locals and tourists alike. We also motored to the nearby Kuang Si waterfall. There are also tuk-tuks willing to take tourists to all local attractions if motorbikes aren't your bag.
A TripAdvisor WIN was a search for restaurants "nearby" our guest house. Cafe Toui popped up as highly rated, authentic local food. We walked over one evening and it was closed. The next evening we tried again and are very happy to report that the food was spectacular! The cafe is an intimate place, located on the main floor of an old shophouse. Chef Toui visits your table and actually took our order as he wasn't busy when we arrived. Highly recommend this cafe in Luang Prabang for Laos specialties!