Exploring in Vang Vieng, Laos

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

It’s about 100 miles from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Most of it is through rugged mountains, looping back and forth along high ridge lines and around immense limestone karsts. So the 100 miles takes about 6 hours.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Vang Vieng sits on the Nam Song river, a beautiful stretch of clean, cool water that flows at the feet of large karst mountains. Rock climbing is becoming a major business and there are quite a number of caves to explore. It also has a reputation for being a party town. If you’ve heard of bars where episodes of Friends or Family Guy play on endless loops and dazed backpackers stare on inebriated – this is that town. Or at least it was. Over the last decade tubing down the Nam Song river has become one of the main draws of the backpacker set. Run by a collective representing each of the towns in the area, a good deal of the money actually goes back to locals. It starts about 7km outside of town and up until this summer, most of the route was lined with bars, dancing platforms, rickety zip lines, rope swings, and “water” slides. Mix in a liberal drug policy and you can see why one of the largest concrete slides was nicknamed, “the slide of death.” But after 20 deaths in under a year (and perhaps the untimely death of an official’s niece), in September 2012 the government came in and literally tore down all the bars along the river.

The town’s reputation was enough to keep it off our list but after talking with some fellow travelers and hearing about the changes, we decided to give it a try. Tubing down the river on our first day was the perfect combination of laziness and sightseeing. On our second day, we decided to go slightly farther afield and rented motor bikes to go explore the caves dotting the surrounding area.

sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

Sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

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One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

Getting ready to go tubing down the river on old tractor inner tubes

Getting ready to go tubing down the the Nam Song river on old tractor tire inner tubes

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 getting ready to climb lots of steps to see the Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

Getting ready to climb lots of steps to see Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

view from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

View from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

area at the  base of the stairs to Xang cave

At the base of the stairs to Xang cave

in the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave, Tham Phoukam

In the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave outside of town, Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

decked out in the headlamp

Decked out in the headlamp

inside Tham Phoukam

Inside Tham Phoukam

large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

Large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

taking a break on our motorbike ride back into town

Taking a photo break on our motorbike ride back into town

 Sharing the road.

Sharing the road

Don't worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

Don’t worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

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Kuang Si Falls, Laos

There are several waterfalls near Luang Prabang, and after reading up on them it seemed that Kuang Si falls was the best one to visit during the dry season, when some waterfalls all but disappear. Even after doing our research, nothing prepared us for how amazing this series of cascades and pools would be. I’m pretty sure the pictures don’t do it justice, but they come closer than words can.

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Minerals in the water made some of the more shallow pools an iridescent light turquoise-y blue-green color. As a side bonus, the minerals made a fantastic natural cleanser for our travel weary (and dirty) feet.

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There was a line of folks to jump off of a rope tied into a tree about 15-20 feet above the water, while what seemed like hundreds of people watched. Too much of an audience for me, but John took a jump.

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And next, John bravely jumped off one of the ‘smaller’ waterfalls, that was about 10 feet high. But even at that shorter height, I still didn’t get up the nerve … maybe next time.
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Lovely Luang Prabang

View of the Mekong from Mount Phou Si in the center of LP

View of the Nam Khan River from Mount Phou Si in the center of LP


Luang Prabang is a charming little city in the center of northern Laos on the Mekong River. It is nestled in a valley and surrounded by rolling mountains. The Mekong and Nam Khan rivers hug the peninsula of the city on either side. So it has a misty natural beauty going for it, and then when you walk around the Old Quarter of the city, it almost feels like you are going back in time. Or at least like time slows way down.

This was partly due to the fact that Laos is just really different than all of its neighbors. The Lao people are known for being very laid back and don’t like to do anything if there isn’t an element of fun. (This is apparently in stark contrast to their very industrious Vietnamese neighbors.) They are also more religious and traditional than their neighbors. We generally found the Lao people we interacted with to be friendly, but more reserved. On the occasions when we got more insight they did seem very fun-loving. In any case, Laos definitely had a different feel than Thailand. It was far less developed and more rural, less populated, and in general more difficult to travel in than Thailand. For all these reasons, we liked it more.

Sunset from the city over the Mekong

Sunset over the Mekong, taken from Mount Phou Si

Walking through Luang Prabang also made me feel like I was in a very different place than any I’d been before because there were so many Wats, or temples, and active monks and monks-in-training. It is customary for most young Lao boys to spend some amount of time in the monastery for training. It seemed like this could be anywhere from 7 days to several years, and while some of them stay in the monastery for life, most of them go back out and continue on with the next phase in their lives. It is here that many learn to speak English and get to practice it, allowing them to work in tourism.

You can hardly turn a corner in Luang Prabang without seeing many orange-robed monks walking in pairs around the city. It is a really lovely and peaceful sight. DSC03408 LP is also well-known for a daily ceremony that involves the Buddhist faithful giving alms [often high-quality rice balls] to hundreds of monks who walk around the monasteries every morning at sunrise. It is supposed to be beautiful. Sadly, we read that so many tourists now line up to watch and take photos that locals feel it is ruining their experience. Given this ratio of tourists to monks, we thought watching this ceremony might not hold the same appeal it did a few years ago.

On the main drag of LP. Very cute town with lots of obvious French influence from when from when they controlled it from the late 1890s to 1954.

On the main drag of LP. Very cute town with lots of obvious French influence from when from when they controlled it from the late 1890s to 1954.

The Indian place we went to a few times served my amazing butter chicken with  heart-shaped rice, and my coke with a pepsi glass.

The Indian place we went to a few times served my amazing butter chicken with heart-shaped rice, and my coke with a pepsi glass.

The city is also very charming because most of the buildings are a French colonial style. While thinking about how all that influence originated reminds me of an unfortunate history, it is hard not to appreciate the remnants. I have to admit, I also really loved getting to have cappuccinos and lattes if we wanted them, which was not the norm for us in Thailand. They also had lots of bread in LP, and Laos, generally, which was awesome given they didn’t really have bread in Thailand. A common street food on offer in LP was baguette with Nutella, so naturally, this city holds a special place in my heart. As far as the rest of the food went, we didn’t like the Lao food as much as Thai food, and I guess the best dishes I had were at an Indian restaurant. (My Lao food experience may be jaded by the bout of food poisoning I picked up about a week into our stay, see more below).

There were some interesting culinary experiences, though, like going through a street food buffet which had probably 20-30 large wok-sized bowls overflowing with various Lao dishes. You could fill up one plate (no seconds) for about $1.25. But, as with everything in SE Asia, there is always something unexpected in every transaction. In this case, after you went through and carefully picked out the food you wanted and precariously arranged it on your plate to maximize the food you got on your one trip, but also to keep things that had really different sauces from mixing too much … well, then you hand your plate to the the woman running the buffet to pay, and she then dumped it all in a heated wok and mixed it up in order to warm up the food! So, that was a bit at odds with actually tasting anything in particular, but it was a pretty good smorgasbord and for that price, what a great deal!

One of our daily activities, looking at menus and finding food.

One of our daily activities, looking at menus and finding food.


I really loved LP, but it was also here that John and I got several different types of sick, including a nasty head cold for me, a more mild cold for John, our first relatively minor stomach issues throughout our stay, and then a majorly bad case of food poisoning for me. Suffice it to say that all is well that ends well, and after several hours of feeling about as sick as I can remember, John convinced me to take a Cipro and the worst of it was over soon after that. (In case you are wondering, this was several days after the street food buffet, so that wasn’t the culprit. I think it could have been some sliced fruit I ate at our hotel breakfast, but who really knows.) I still wasn’t able to eat or do much of anything for a few days afterward, so we lost some time in LP, and I think John got a little bored there. He got out a bit on his own, but mostly we just slowed down and did a lot of reading and recovering and listening to the rats scurry around in the ceiling of our rustic bungalow. I guess doing not much of anything was kind of appropriate for such a lazy-paced city. There were a few things I really wanted to do before leaving, so we ended up staying longer than planned to fit everything in.

We were staying at a bungalow right on the other side of this bridge, which only allowed motorbikes and bicycles. We rode our bikes on it once and it is harder than it looks to stay on the planks! There was a pedestrian walkway on the side, see below.

We were staying right across this bridge, which only allowed motorbikes and bicycles. We rode our bikes on it once and it is harder than it looks to stay on the plank! There was a pedestrian walkway on the side, see below.

This is the pedestrian walkway on either side of the bridge. The boards weren't all nailed down or even, so there was a lot of banging around when you walked. And, it was pretty high over the water below. It was mostly fine during the day, and pretty terrifying at night.

This is the pedestrian walkway on either side of the bridge. The boards weren’t all nailed down or even, so there was a lot of banging around when you walked. And, it was pretty high over the water below. It was mostly fine during the day, and pretty terrifying at night because you couldn’t see very well.

 It may have been rickety, but at least it was well lit!

Alternatively, we could get to our place by walking over a bamboo bridge that was rebuilt every year after it got washed out during the rainy season. It may have been rickety, but at least it was well lit! (Unlike the other bridge)

Bamboo bridge by day

Bamboo bridge by day

Statues on Mount Phou Si

Statues on Mount Phou Si in the center of town

Large sleeping Buddha at Wat Phou Si

Large sleeping Buddha at Wat Phou Si

Wat Phou Si

Wat Phou Si

At Wat Phou Si

At Wat Phou Si

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

Lanterns in the courtyard of a restaurant

Lanterns in the courtyard of a restaurant

Top of the tents making up the night market. The center piece of the town every night and a great market for shopping!

Top of the tents making up the night market. The center piece of the town every night and a great market for shopping!

umbrellas for sale in the night market

umbrellas for sale in the night market

tuk tuk

Lao tuk tuk

Slow Boating Down the Mekong in Laos

After heading northeast on a 6 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, Thailand, we were at the Laos border. This ride went through some really¬†beautiful scenery with lots of mountains and karsts.¬†At the border checkpoint, there are several options for moving on through Laos once you cross the river (no entry by road that we saw). Following the Mekong River east through the country takes you to Luang Prabang, where most people head from the border. You could go north first and do the Gibbon Experience, which we’ve heard great things about, but it is popular so was fully booked for the whole time we would be near there. So on to Luang Prabang for us. We’d read some horror stories about the two-day public slow boat, which included overcrowded boats of near to 100 people with no food/drink, and sometimes nowhere to sit the whole time. We really wanted to avoid that scenario.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

You could also take a speedboat that got you there in 6 hours, but we’d read some unpleasant stories about that AND the guidebook strongly recommended not taking this option because it was so dangerous. We saw a few of these boats on our trip and most of the passengers were wearing motorcycle helmets, either because of the noise or the high risk of hitting a rock and flying out of the boat (or both). Either way, no thanks.

And, there is a public bus option that I think takes like 20 hours or so on very poor roads. In the end, we got a great recommendation from a friend (thanks Em!) for a private slow boat with food, drinks, and cushions (something public boats don’t have), as well as a guide to help you cross the border and show you through a couple villages along the way. This option was a bit of a splurge for our budget, but booking ‘The Nagi of Mekong’ turned out to be so, so worth it.

View from our boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

View from our taxi boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration "office"

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration “office”

We crossed the river that is the Thailand-Laos border, went through a very hectic Lao immigration, and then glided along the Mekong River for about 8 hours each day and stopped over night half way in a tiny village called Pak Beng.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really  glad we didn't have to do it on our own.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really glad we didn’t have to do it on our own.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

What a fantastic introduction to Laos! This trip along the Mekong River was so peaceful, relaxing, and gorgeous, that we just laid back and soaked it all in. Best of all, we had two days to get to know the other 18 or so folks on board and had a great time hanging out. I could see where this leisurely pace of getting to Luang Prabang could be too slow for people who were on a tighter time frame or didn’t have the good fortune to hit it off with their fellow passengers. But, it was really great for us.

Lori, across from our new friend, John, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in S Korea.

Lori, across from our new friend, Jon, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in South Korea.

John and John enjoying some beers. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before John headed south.

Jon and John enjoying some BeerLao. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before Jon headed south.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn't catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn’t catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the [smartly] group shied away from this cultural experience so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the group declined this cultural experience, so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos (which is where much of the population lives). I'm sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it ...

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos. Much of the population lives in rural areas. I’m sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it …

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying to wave at us.

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying for a moment to wave at us.

 

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

 

View along the Mekong River in Laos

View along the Mekong River as we neared Luang Prabang. We only occasionally saw any sign of humans for the entire two day trip.