Au Revoir to you, mighty Lonely Planet guidebook. You were right almost half the time. Maybe.
(Seriously though, don’t buy this book if you’re travelling SE Asia. It’s pretty terrible.)
Firstly, I am ecstatic to report that I am writing this from Thailand. There’s real, actual fast internet. There is actual English Breakfast Tea. There are roads that are completely paved! As much as I’ve loved our journey, it’s really nice to get back to somewhere that’s really easy to travel through.
After our lovely time in Luang Prabang we made our way over to Huay Xai, the border town between Thailand and Laos. There almost nothing there. There’s about 2 bars, a bunch of guesthouses and nothing else. It’s also low season, which meant a bunch of stuff was shut or toned down; we were staying in a set of bungalows where the reviews espoused about the amazing restaurant (with wifi), and the lovely evening campfire and family atmosphere. We arrived to find the restaurant being used to dry laundry, no wifi, and no campfire in site.
There is however one good thing (and only one thing) to do: the Gibbon Experience. Set in deep jungle, participants spend 2 – 3 days hiking between 200-500 meter long zip lines over gorgeous forest scenery, including overnight stays in a real life treehouse. After googling “Gibbon Experience Death” came up with a blank, we decided to go for the express 2 day course. There’s less wildlife spotting in favour of more ziplining which suited me to a tee.
I admit I was a little nervous going in. The whole thing is very remote; a one hour drive followed by a 2 hour uphill hike, and then 9 zip lines to the tree house. If something goes wrong then it’s a long journey to the hospital! And although most of the trip advisor reviews are overwhelmingly positive, there were a few that had me worried- limited food options, guides who spoke no English, one guy whose brake failed and caused him to crash into a tree. Turns out I had nothing to worry about at all, as this place is really well run (and there’s no way the break could have failed; that guy clearly just didn’t follow the instructions.)
Zip lining is incredible. I really hope we get to do it again at some point soon. There’s basically a thick metal cable between two points, usually a couple of hundred meters up in the air. You’re in a harness that supports your legs and back, which has a safety line and your roller (which has a bit of tyre stuck to the top that you squeeze to brake). Clip both on and jump, simple! We had guides with us at all times, but on the three day version you’re allowed to go off zipping by yourself. Some lines are slow (which mean you need to lean back to get enough speed to get to the other end; we’re both suffering from sore abs today as a result) or fast (which meant you need to be handy with your brake, although there are crash pads on the other end so it’s not too bad if you don’t slow in time.) It’s a real adrenaline rush. You get up to some incredible speeds and have an unspoilt view of the forest.
On day one our group had 17 people in it, which was way too many and meant a lot of standing around for everyone to clear the lines. Fortunately we split into two groups on day 2 so we could move a lot faster. There’s a little bit of hiking in between each line, but overall it’s nicely spaced so you really appreciate each one.
As amazing as the ziplines are, the tree house has to be the main highlight. I’ve no idea how they managed to build it, but it’s awesome. To get into it you need to zipline (of course.) It’s built over 4 different levels, with unspoilt views of the forest; you really can’t see anyone or anything else, probably for the better as the shower and toilet are completely open to the elements. After a full day of zipping it’s one of the best showers I’ve ever had though.
Hot food is ziplined in for dinner and breakfast, and in the evening they came in to set up our beds and mosquito nets; again, everything is out and open to the elements. As a result I didn’t sleep very well, convinced a giant spider or rat was going to come into our little den, not helped when at 4AM the heavens opened. It was so loud we had to shout to talk, but it was an amazing experience.
I think for both of us this was one of the best highlights of the trip so far. It was worth all the bus journeys and a day in a dead town. We can’t recommend it enough!
To be fair, it began even before we hit Laos.
Siem Reap (Cambodia)- Si Phan Don (southern Laos) Time advertised: 8 hours. Actual time taken: 11.5 hours.
This was just a really badly organised bus company. We went through Asia Van Transfer because they use the new road upto Laos, which is supposed to cut off a lot of the journey time. Fair enough, we paid about $7 more than a local bus, but it was supposed to cut off 4 hours from the route they take. And for a few hours, all was ok, even though it was at full capacity and Sam was sat on an ‘extra’ folding seat. We were then transferred onto a smaller mini bus, with more people on it. Still, all was fine, we were off to Laos, we were excited! We started to get a bit irritated about the state of the road but it was alright. Then came the border. Hilarious waste of an hour. Our Laos mini bus eventually rocked up and, surprise surprise, it was smaller still. Now everyone’s just pissed off and sitting 4/5 people to a 3 person seat. 11 hours after leaving SR, we rock up in Nakasang only to then be charged more to take a boat to an island. With a drunk boat driver. After waiting around for 30 mins whilst he finished his beer with his mates. Fab.
Si Phan Don- Pakse Time advertised: 3 hours. Actual time taken: 5 hours.
Here, we took a boat, which is meant to hold about 8 people, to Nakasang. But instead of 8 people, lets put 16 people plus all their luggage on the boat- GREAT IDEA. The front of the boat was sagging, but we all made it in one piece. At the bus station, we then bumped into a family we’d met in Cambodia and were having a chat with them, so missed the first mini bus. Ok, no problem- we’ll take the second. Oh but wait- we got on the second bus, we drove back down to where the boat pulled up and sat there for an hour, waiting for others, who were presumably on a boat coming to meet us? No, apparently not. We then drove back down to the other end of the village, sat at a junction for 30 mins, waiting. Where were these people? Even the bus drivers didn’t seem sure. Finally we went BACK TO THE BOAT ARRIVALS to wait some more. Eventually they turned up and we were on our way, arriving about 2 hours late.
Pakse- Vientiane Time advertised: 12 hours. Actual time taken: 14 hours.
This was so bad on so many levels. We’ve really enjoyed the sleeper trains we’ve done in Thailand and so were actually quite excited about taking a sleeper bus. We got to the bus after a wait of 90 mins, were the first on, along with another couple we’d met. We immediately headed straight to the front of the upper deck- the view was awesome, our mattresses were comfy and so much leg room. Ah. There’s seat numbers on our tickets. Hhm. Maybe it’ll be fine…….
No it was not fine. We realised that our seats were at the very back, as part of a 5 berth bed. Panic set in and some Japanese men came to point out that we were lying in their beds. I started making travel sickness noises and they were so lovely, they said they would swap with us. Phew. Disaster averted. Then came the ANGRY BUS DRIVER. He basically shouted at us to swap back and then shouted again for Sam to lie next to the window and me next to him because 3 local women were coning to sleep next us. BRILLIANT. 14 hours later, I’m pretty sure the woman next to me wished she’d had some sort of weapon. I know I did. She basically elbowed me all night and I was trying so hard to lie on my side so as not to take up too much space. After about 9 hours, I gave up caring and just started elbowing her out of the way. Fairly sure Sam slept through most of the journey- he didn’t dare complain to me about having no space, I was ready to do a double elbow manoeuvre on him if necessary.
Vientiane- Luang Prabang Time advertised: 9 hours. Actual time taken: 13 hours.
In fairness, this was a relatively good trip. The bus was only half full and so we got a double seat each. We’d heard beforehand that this road was really dangerous, lots of narrow cliff sides, gangs etc. Before the bus set off, a man came around selling travel sickness tablets and the driver gave out sick bags. Trepidation set in.
Who are these wimps that made all of this up? That’s right folks, Lonely Planet strikes again! The scenery was stunning and the roads were no narrower than when we drove round the Cotswolds last summer. Yes, we seemed to stop every 20 mins for a break but it was ok. About 30 mins from LP, we saw a broken down bus up ahead. Now running 3 hours late, you could see all of the westerners on the bus praying that we weren’t going to stop and help. But our bus drivers were so lovely, we did. 20 minutes later, we realised we weren’t going anywhere quick and so we all got out to have a walk around. It was really beautiful and there were good photo ops. I thought I’d go and have a look at what all the drivers were doing and, I kid you not, drivers from both buses are standing around behind our bus, having a cheeky cig. They were not the kind, helpful drivers we thought they were. They just wanted yet another break.
Luang Prabang- Huay Xai Time advertised: 12-15 hours. Actual time taken: 12 hours.
This wasn’t too bad- double seat each, cosy blankets, bus actually got a move on and arrived ahead of schedule. Just one problem…… 12 hours of LOUD Laos pop. Sam likened it to the demo function on a keyboard with some terrible singing over the top.
Huay Xai (northern Laos)- Chiang Mai (Thailand) Time advertised: 4.5 hours. Actual time taken: 6 hours.
Hurray, finally a bus that I can rave about! Huge minibus, only 4 people on it, super speedy driver. LOVED IT. Oh yeah, and it started after the border crossing. The added 1.5 hours was on the Laos side with late pickups and faffing.
Hello Thailand. We’ve missed you.
make it Luang Prabang.
Lonely Planet told us that this was an amazing place, so you can imagine our shock when it was actually right. After a love/hate relationship with our guide book, it’s finally redeemed itself. Originally, we planned to do 2 nights here, but we decided to extend to 3 and I’m so glad we did. As much as I don’t want to use superlatives when writing, this is going to be the one exception, because it is truly a wonderful, beautiful city. As a UNESCO world heritage site, we has an inkling it would be, and coming from Vientiane, it honestly feels like we’re in a different time, let alone country.
It’s actually quite a small city and we hired bikes (poor Sam, he’s given up arguing about it now) and spent a day cycling around. There are numerous cute coffee shops, boutique stores selling so many things I want but can’t justify buying, and lovely riverfront hotels. Alas, we were staying on the opposite side of town in a cheapy cheap hotel (for a tenner a night we really couldn’t complain.) However, we’d heard that the riverfront hotels did some great walk in rates and so we asked around. Finally, we found an awesome riverfront room with a balcony and king sized bed for half the cost advertised on agoda. RESULT. Yes, at 30 gbp it was way more than we’ve been paying, but knowing that we’ve got more night buses and jungles to come, we thought it was well worth the splurge.
Yesterday we found some other randoms to split transport costs and off we went in a shared tuk tuk to Kuang Si waterfall, about 32km out of the city. This photo says it all really.
We also got to visit a sun bear centre, where they rehabilitate/protect sun bears from poachers. There were so many bears and we were able to get really close to them. Super cute!
And the food. Oh, the food! From market baguettes and smoothies to incredible Laos feasts, we’ve eaten so well here. Again, no need to elaborate.
I don’t know if it’s because everything is a little pricey here than other places we’ve been in Laos, but there doesn’t seem to be that many groups of gap year students. Everyone seems a little older and there’s a definite family vibe. Also, for the first time in this whole trip, loads of British are here, esp middle-upper class who seem to be on an unlimited budget. As far as I know, LP is only accessible by air from Bangkok (internationally) so I’m assuming these Brits are mainly doing this? Otherwise, Laos is quite inaccessible unless you come in by bus, which is one of the reasons we’ve never been able to come before.
I do hope we come back.
I would first like to clarify some bits from Laura’s last post, as she said I didn’t like our trip to the 4000 islands. It’s a bit more complicated than that (although generally right, as she always is.)
The islands are genuinely nice. Exceptionally beautiful in a way which I don’t think we were able to capture in a photograph. The cute bars over the river selling gigantic beer for 1 quid and meals for not much more were a lovely way to enjoy the sunset. All good so far.
There were two main things that annoyed me; first, the roads were terrible having suffered from the rain. They were barely roads. They were more mud pits. I understand that we’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s wet season, but they’ve been left in such utter disrepair. Somewhere like Chi Phat which was much more remote managed to maintain their roads to a reasonable level. The roads on Don Khone were barely passable even for pedestrians and it kinda ruined any attempts to do anything. Having spoken to some friends who have just been to Vang Vieng (another town in Laos) they had the same problem.
The second, which I think now is more of a Laos thing, is just the general treatment of tourists. We’ve just come from Cambodia, where everyone was genuinely thankful for you visiting their country and understood that tourism is hugely important for the country for it’s recovery and growth. Everyone was friendly, service was excellent, and it was just a damn good place to travel around. My experience of Laos so far is the exact opposite of this. People really don’t give a crap about tourists. A quick look on TripAdvisor shows tons of reviews along the lines of “the staff couldn’t have been less interested if they tried”. I’ve seen this over and over and over again.
I also feel like we’re being constantly ripped off (or trying to be). Whether it be the tuk tuk driver who asked for more money when we arrived at our Vientiane hotel because it was further than he normally takes people (despite us showing him the destination before we got on), to the 2 sets of bribes at the border that have to be paid so you can then watch one guy do all the work and 4 others standing around doing nothing, or the tuk tuk drivers who stand in groups and won’t give a reasonable price. Everything here seems to be centred around fleecing the traveller for as much cash and as little service as possible.
Rant over. It’s not as bad as I’m making it sound in reality; Laos is a very nice country with some great scenery, some very nice food and lots of nice cafes. You can definitely feel the ex-French vibe here more than I think you can in Vietnam or Cambodia.
Vientiane has to be one of the worlds smallest capital cities. I can safely say it’s about the same size as somewhere like Darlington, and would be eclipsed by places like York or Leeds. Like most places, there are a lot of temples (although I think we’re fully templed out so haven’t really been going to see them anymore). The major monument is a replica of the Arc de Triumph, built out of concrete donated by the USA for a runway (suspect they were pissed about that). It was fairly underwhelming and very random.
Laos is another country that the USA has done it’s best to destroy in the past. Also subject of mass bombings during the cold war, there are millions of unexploded objects still around the country. We visited the COPE centre exhibition which showed the great work that’s being done to help people who have lost limbs through “UXO”s (Unexploded objects.) There are some terrible stories of kids finding and picking them up to sell the scrap metal, or fisherman trying to use them to kill lots of fish, only for them to explode in the hand. There were scary photos of unexploded missiles and bomblets (“bombies”) in pharmacies and shops that people are selling as souvenirs. They’ve just become engrained in the culture. One guy even helped to build his own fake leg using metal from an exploded bomb!
Overall there wasn’t a huge amount to do though, so I’m glad we only had 2 nights. Yesterday we completed an epic 13 hour journey through some of the most beautiful mountain roads to get to where we are today: Luang Prabang. More on that next time.