We want to visit the capital after leaving Tha Khaek, where we have rented a small apartment with kitchen in a Lao apartment building. We are really looking forward to being independent after eating in restaurants for weeks. The trip to Vientiane is possible with a night bus, but it leaves at 1 A.M., not really convenient with toddler Noa so we take the morning bus. We ordered VIP tickets because we want to be comfortable during the six hour bus ride. The bus is very luxurious indeed, with our own table. We are really excited and believe this trip will be easy. But ofcourse, as you could have guessed, we shouldn’t have celebrated so quickly. After traveling just one and a half hours we suddenly stop. The bus driver and his help spend 45 minutes trying to fix the bus while all the passages try to find a spot in the shade along the highway. Unfotrunately they come to the conclusion that the bus is broken. Fortunately the bus driver stops a long distance bus which has lots of space and arranges for almost all passages to go along.
It’s a sleeper, so we have two bed chairs, and are happy we didn’t have to wait longer, but still have a long day ahead of us. Noa plays some games and falls into a deep sleep while we watch villages pass us by through the window. It feels really, really weird to be laying down and watching out the window. In the end we arrive in Vientiane hours past the supposed time and take a tuk-tuk to our apartment. Which is located in a neighbourhood bordering the centre of town, but a place no tourists come and our tuk-tuk driver tries to drop us off at three different locations than where we need to be. We’re lucky we spend time before hand figuring out exactly where we need to be. The ride should be 20 minutes, but takes us one and a half hours. Pfff, the day started out as very promising but has turned into the longest travel day of our trip.
The welcome at the apartment is somewhat confusing, no one speaks English and the apartment isn’t what we expected. It hasn’t been cleaned, and the kitchen doesn’t have a stove, just a microwave. We do have our own bathroom and a huge room with tv and closet, which feels like luxury after the simple guesthouses. We stay because it’s too late to look for anything else, and the apartment should be cleaned every day so we’re hoping on an improvement.
We try to find a restaurant in the neighbourhood because it’s been 12 hours since we took our tuk-tuk in Tha Khaek. The only thing we can find is a huge open air restaurant with a band playing. Way to expensive for our budget, but it looks save to eat at. Noa loves listening to the band and moves to the podium to stand there moving to the beat on his cute toddler flip-flops, while the band and everybody at the restaurant watches him. The next morning we wake Noa by singing happy birthday, and hang up streamers while he takes a shower. Noa’s birthday has already passed but because we were in a small village at the time with nothing available to celebrate his birthday, we moved his birthday up by a couple of days. While still in Holland I researched where to celebrate his birthday and read reviews about a coffeeshop with playground in the centre of town called Common Grounds Cafe.
We have our breakfast there and while Noa plays in the playground I put together a birthday hat with the blue paper we just bought at a stationary shop. Noa ordered the hat himself when we asked him what he wanted to do on his birthday. And he doesn’t take the hat off until he goes to bed at the end of the day, how cute. After breakfast we head to the only toystore in Vientiane to find some gifts. The rest of the day we spend swimming, reading messages from family, eating birthday cake and we end the day by eating pizza. Noa enjoys his birthday so much, he talks about his “big” day for days after.
Vientiane in cold weather
We arrange bikes in the centre of Vientiane so we can bike from and to our apartment, because the tuk-tuk’s are way to expensive on a backpacking budget. A ride with a tuk-tuk of three kilometers is about 4,5 euro (6 dollars), just as much money as traveling on a long distance bus for three hours. Because Lao people don’t seem to be used to Western people biking with a toddler/child on their bike they drive around us with a huge margin, which is really nice considering how busy the roads are. This allows us to bike everywhere in the city – we visit temples, a bowling alley, supermarkets to buy ingredients for microwave food (did you know that you can make really good spaghetti, french toast and fried eggs in microwave?) a Lao Arc de Triomphe, the morning market and much more.
The weather has changed, it’s become much colder, during the day it’s not warmer than 16 degrees Celsius and at night the temperature is even lower. It’s really cold in the apartment because there is no heating and the windows don’t close properly. We sleep with thermo underwear on, double blankets and our coats on and cuddle together to keep warm. We are thinking about leaving and going up north early, but we find out that it’s even colder there and it’s snowed for the first time in the history of Laos. Many people died of the cold, so did a lot of farm animals and fish in the rivers and lakes. We decide that if the cold continues we will travel to Thailand because the cold has skipped Thailand.
Vang Vieng in-between the karst mountains
When we take the bus to Vang Vieng the weather forecast shows improvement and when we get of the bus at Vang Vieng the sun is shining and it’s 28 degrees Celsius, wonderful. On the bus I started talking to a friendly British guy who was traveling through Laos and Vietnam and was reminiscing about his trip around the world about twenty years earlier when he discovered we just started our year of traveling. One of the best experiences of his life without a doubt, he tells me, and that makes us realize we have eleven wonderful months left on this trip! Before leaving I selected Maylyn guesthouse because it has a huge garden for Noa to play in and is supposed to be beautiful. The garden turns out to be huge, and even has a bridge in it giving access to even more gardens across the river- what a beautiful place. The owners are an Irish guy married to a Lao. When Joe sees our butterfly pictures he comes by for a small talk. He photographs the butterflies in his garden as well and proudly shows us a book in which his photographs are published.
We would have loved to stay longer at this gorgeous guesthouse but our visa’s are running out and getting an extension is double the price than if we arrange it in the next city, so we continue on with regret. We do take a day by motorbike to explore the surroundings. We climb a mountain to watch the views over Vang Vieng Valley, visit a blue lagoon, and ride a mini-loop of 26 kilometers through beautiful countryside.
This is one of those places where we know we will be back one day, one of those places that you dream about when times are busy and hectic back home when you grave peace and quiet.
Discovering Luang Prabang in a slow pace.
We don’t know yet how many days we want to extend our visa and continue on traveling to the Thai border. The Lao jungle is calling us and in the north of Laos is famous for it’s beautiful hikes. But the road from Luang Prabang (the city where we are extending our visa) to the national park is a trip of multiple days. First stop is Luang Prabang and we’ll take the time there to do the research.
On the bus to Luang Prabang we meet a British couple with their Lao son-in-law. They are traveling together to their British daughter and two grandchildren. They have all kinds of tips for Noa in Luang Prabang, and we take a tuk-tuk to their guesthouse hoping there is a room available for us as well, but unfortunately there isn’t. The next few days we keep bumping into them in the streets, in a restaurant and a waterfall and get a chance to meet their daughter and grandchildren as well.
In the mean time we have decided to stay in Laos for another 11 days, and we get up the next day to arrange to extend our visa. The instructions in our travel guide about the immigrations office are outdated, and unfortunately the instructions we found on wiki-travel aren’t correct either. We find a small note on the door of the old office saying they moved to the police headquarters, the exact building we have passed several times looking for the immigration office. When we finaaly get there we find out that passport photo’s are needed for the extension so we have to go back to our guesthouse to pick them up. Fifteen minutes before the immigration office closes we manage to hand in our request for an extension, pffff just in time.
We stay in Luang Prabang for another five days, what a place full of tourists, but also a beautiful small town along the Mekong. We enjoy some quiet days walking through the centre of town, along the night market, drinking beers along the Mekong, trying out new Lao dishes, playing in the garden of the guesthouse, visiting beautiful temples, a viewpoint above the city and a waterfall with a bear rescue centre. We have slowed down our pace because we have noticed that Noa has had a hard time processing all the impressions and has been up in the middle of the night for the first time since we left on our trip. The slower days help and after a couple of days he is sleeping like a rose again.
Luxury cruise over the Mekong
We figured out the route of the last days towards the border, we find a luxury boot that sails up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, next to the Thai border. The trip will take two days with a stopover in Pakbeng, a small village halfway. The boat is forty meters long and has sunbeams, lounge beds and tables to sit at. We’re sure we will all enjoy ourselves on the boat and it will be a lot more comfortable than the alternative, a twelve hour bus ride. It takes us three days to book the boat because the booking office is often closed, but the night before we leave we finally get the confirmation that we will be picked up the next morning by a minivan.
The cruise is fantastic, we are welcomed by a Lao guide that is immediately taken by Noa, he speaks really good English and makes sure everybody is enjoying themselves the entire cruise. But the other staff is just as kind, cooking incredible lunches and spoiling Noa with bananas and mandarines. The boat is huge, and although fifty people can fit on the boat there are only fifteen guests. Noa has all the space he needs to play and because of that we ourselves have hours of time to listen to music, read, sort to photo’s, play games and write our blog. It’s kind of like a mini-holiday on our trip, that sounds a big crazy, but along the way we want to see so much of the country that we are non-stop visiting one place after another. While on the boat we are forced to simple do nothing and watch the Mekong pass by. On the first day we have a visit to cave and the second to a Laos primitive village. Visiting a village is never really our thing, but with Noa at least it feels even, both of looking each other over. The whole village comes to see the “fallang noi” walking around with two sticks in his hands, as everybody calls him in Laos, or translated, small white foreigner.
From Huay Xai to Vieng Phoeka
There’s not much to do in Huay Xai, that’s why we want to continue onto Vieng Phoeka, a village next to one of the biggest national parks in Loas; Nam Ha National Bio-Diversity Conversation Area. We can’t find much information about how to get there so we head to the busstation hoping to find more there. When we get there we find out there are only two busses a day and of course, the first one just left fifteen minutes ago and the next one doesn’t leave for another two and a half hours. We’re lucky that Noa finds two Lao girls to play with so Michiel and I can sit in the early morning sun, warming and reading a book. The busied should have taken two hours, but takes three hours through high mountains which the bus has a hard time to cross. Because of all the rocking we all fall asleep and miss most of the ride. We wake up half an hour before we reach Vieng Phoebe and luckily, because the driver keeps on going without stopping for us. After asking, shouting and the help of the locals on the bus he stops but doesn’t drop us at the village. We have to walk
back and while we walk along the sidewalk most of the village comes out to see us and welcomes us with “Sabaidee”. We see a huge truck passing by on which people are sitting on top. I don’t get how these people can sit so high up until we see the back of the truck and realise the guys are sitting on two elephants! Two elephants in a truck, we can’t believe our eyes. In the village are a couple of simpel guesthouse, but no tourists, everything is empty. We take the guesthouse with simpel bamboo bungalows with a huge grass garden for Noa and gorgeous views of the river at the back. But what we did not realise or know was that the weather had been acting up in Vieng Phoeka and an hour after we arrived the temperature quickly started to drop, within two hours the temperature dropped twenty degrees. We get some extra blankets, and order hot soup and go to bed early to keep warm. The next morning the cook comes to ask what we want for breakfast, the soup with rice the night before was watery and tasteless so we order sandwiches with egg and hash browns to get our energy back. But when we see the breakfast all of it is floating in a huge pile of oil, the eggs have been literally fried in oil and are foul. The bread feels like it’s about three weeks old. Up to know we have only had good food in Laos, but this is terrible. We go to find a different guesthouse, and across the street there is a guesthouse with cement walls, that should be a lot warmer. After that we go to find a restaurant for breakfast, which turns out not to be so easy in a small village, so we buy eggs to cook in our water boiler.
An adventure in the jungle
We organised a trek of day for the next day so we go to bed early. Our guide, Noi (a small, very happy friendly Lao man) has already come to meet us the night before and picks us up with a pick-up truck with driver. We get dropped off at a primitive village and we are allowed to take a look around, Noa steels the show, the whole village comes to take a look at Noa. In the mean time our guide has met up with the local guide from the village, and after we are done looking around we go past some house, over a bamboo bride over the river and come across a huge bamboo forest. The guide and Noi go and collect bamboo and tell us they are going to prepare our lunch in it. They offer the bamboo to us because it has gorgeous cool and clean water inside. Along the way the village man and Noi show and let us taste all kinds of local products that they pick from feels and the jungle, fatty nuts that are roasted or used to make oil, we get to taste cassava, wild lemon, sugar palm and eatable flowers.
While we get to taste all these things the men are gathering stuff for lunch. The mountain jungle through which we walk is very, very steep, we sweat like crazy and on top of that Noa is on our back puffing. Not explains all kinds of stuff about the plants we come across, the trees and he shows us how the locals set traps to catch snakes and rats by placing fences along the jungle and leaving small openings above which heavy logs are place that drop down when an animal passes through. In one of the traps they find a huge, fat rat measuring about twenty centimes (excluding it’s tail), which they take along, we immediately wonder if this is going to be our lunch?
After two mountains we stop at a dried up riverbed, Noi wants to collect fresh water from a spring for such. He takes us into a cave to find the source of the spring – in the dry season there is only a little water, but more than enough for lunch. We continue on walking until we see the gate to another cave system.
There are two men from the village waiting for us with a fire, all of them collect some more herbs and than everything is prepared and place in the bamboo shoots and put into the fire. The rat is skinned and roasted over the fire. The men from the village start preparing bowls and spoons from banana leaves while we rest in the shadow. Last but not least they make a tablecloth from more banana leaves and everything is put on there. We get chopsticks made from picked bamboo and a banana leave, a handful of rice and we are invited to eat. It’s one of the best meals we’ve had in Laos, boy can these men cook, we eat until our bellies are full and Noa and I even try a piece of rat – wow really salty! After lunch everybody lays down to let the food settle. After about fifteen minutes Noi comes to get us and continue with one of the cooks (who turns out to be the key bearer of the cave) to go to the cave system. The cave tunnels and endless, gorgeous, there are salt crystals shining everywhere when we shine light on them, we see hundreds, maybe even thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, some are even hollow so Noi and the guide play a tune on it. We walk around in the pitch dark for an hour with Noa sleeping on our back. Than Noi warns us that it’s better to go back to the entrance because the cave is getting really slippery and the oxygen in the air is getting less and less. What a special day, to see how people live here of off nature. The guide drops us back of at our guesthouse and we pack our backpacks to travel to the boarder the next day.
Saying goodbye to Laos
Nobody knows exactly what time the bus drives through the village, and there is no busstation – so we get up and go outside at 07:45 and stand on the side of the road. There is mist everywhere and it’s about 7 degrees celsius. While Michiel makes a fire to warm up I watch the road for a bus. At nine o’clock a minivan stops next to us to ask where we are going, when we tell the driver Huay Xai we are allowed to get in. The driver has to go our way and by paying for his gasmoney we allowed to tag along. Good luck! He drives very fast and save through the mountains and drops us off at the boarder. We have left Laos before lunchtime, and have changed our last Laos Kip to Thai Baht, and are in a shuttlebus driving us over the Mekong to the Thai boarder. The irony is quit funny, after five weeks of traveling the very last day in Laos goes as planned.
We have such a beautiful time to look back on, another Asian country that has found a spot in our heart. We have been amazed by the gorgeous nature, and have never seen such splendid waterfalls as here, caves, springs, we have tried numerous Laos dishes and enjoyed them, we have enjoyed the weather, but also shivered in the cold at Vientiane and Vieng Phoeka, made small talk with hundreds of people about Noa and their children, visited primitive villages, driven lots of kilometeres by bike and even more by motorbike. We have experienced Laos from head to toe, bye Laos, we will be back.