We arrived in Laos by crossing over the Mekong river from northern Thailand and got a 14 day visa on arrival. That may sound a bit short and I guess it is but Olivia is running out of money and has been in Laos for six weeks last year when I was still in China. My me, I just wanted a get a first view of the country. Like Burma it wasn't in my original itinerary for the only stupid reason that it isn't on the direct route from London to Singapore. Also the whole southern part of the country, the long stretch between Vietnam in the east and Thailand in the west was considered too hot at this time of the year (April). So we concentrated on the north which is higher up and a bit cooler. The first two days we spent on a small boat on the Mekong with dozens of other backpackers. It was pretty packet but we got some of the better seats and it was okay sitting there all day. Sailing on the Mekong was interesting, nice landscape and river life. The boats are called the slow boats but there were much faster than the local boats in Burma. There are also speed boats which are much faster and do the same distance from Houayxai to Louang Phabang in just one day but they are more expensiveand very loud because of the engines and there is no shade as they have no roof. There are also more dangerous, rumour has it, people die in accidents with these boats every few months. Over night we stayed in a guest house in the small village of Pakbeng, which get invaded every evening by travellers to stay the night. For dinner we went to an Indian restaurant, the best place in the village because we had to celebrate four things: Olivia entered her 9th month of travelling, it's six months since we first met each other, Johnny and Paul's wedding back in London and finally my birthday, the last one with the 3 as the first digit.
Louang Phabang is a nice town on the Mekong, fine hills around it and interesting architecture in town. It's touristy but still very pleasant. A must see is the night market where you pay 50,000 kip for a plate and then fill it up yourself from a choice of dozens of veggie dishes. Another attraction is the Kouang Si waterfall, half an hour south, it's not huge but pretty tall (60m) with many pretty pool below it to swim in. Next to the falls is a little platform on the cliff about 13 meters over the main pool. If you can manage to climb up the steep cliff and are brave enough you can jump down into the main pool. The first jump I did was great, you spend quite some time falling down right next to the waterfall. The second jump was good too until I sunk deeper into the pool and my left eardrum was affected by the quick change in pressure. This is similar to being in a fast list or descending airplane, but must stronger and the feeling stayed in my ear for about a week, nothing serious but not pleasant. If you ever go to the falls, make sure you go up the mountain to the part above the main falls. There are more falls and some beautiful pools you can't see from the bottom, there are also no people up here.
To go up north we had the choices between a bus and another boat. As we liked the ride on the Mekong we went for the boat again. This time the boat was much smaller with only seven people, four passengers and the captain and his family. The Nam Ou river was even nicer than the Mekong, magnificent landscape and also much quieter. The whole day we only saw a few local fisher boars or ferry canoes. At some point the water was so shallow that we had to get off the boat and walk around the shore for a while. Later we had to go through some rapids, so Louang Phabang to Nong Khiaw is a highly recommended boat trip. Just after we arrived in the little village Nong Khiaw, we experienced out first tropical storm. We were having an Indian snack at one of the guest houses when it started to rain and the wind picked up intensity. We had to change table twice further into the building because the plastic chairs and table closer to the street were blown away by the storm, the roof hardly protected us from the strong rainfall. There was also a lot of lightning and thunder, quite different from European storms. From here we could have explore areas further north towards China, but transport here is scare and take time which we didn't have. Instead we turned east on a sawngthaews, one of those covered flat-bed pickup trucks with two rows of hard benches along the side. It took us two days to get to our next stop in Phonsavan. The area we covered was high up and it was therefore nice and cool. The one thing I remember most from the whole ride are the immense forest fires they have up here. Apparently man-made to control the growth of the forest??? For several hours during midday, the smoke was so thick that the whole sky turned red. Imagine the last few minutes before a sunset at the horizon, but here it was the whole sky above you and it lasted for hours.
Phonsavan is the town next to the world famous Plain Of Jars. I had never heard of them, but then I hardly knew anything about Laos before this trip not even the name of its capital (embarrassing). The jars are mostly about a meter tall, made of some stone and 2000 years old. Some bigger ones are over 2 meters tall and weigh as much as 10 tonnes. Interesting but nothing to travel to Laos for. Nearly as interesting I found the huge numbers of bomb craters in the area. The Americans dropped more bombs onto Laos than any other country and most of them in this area. There are still many unexploded bombs here, so one has to be very careful not to leave the cleared treks, something I would normally always do.
Next up was Vang Viang and the bus ride down from the northern mountains has spectacular and beautiful landscape but we also had a mad driver who speeded around the corners and for the first time in living memory I got sick on the bus, I was not the only one though. Vang Viang is the backpackers haven in Laos. Olivia had told me about it, fully catering for the young backpackers crowd, there is a drug problem amongst the local population and therefore some crime too. Olivia hardly recognized the place when we arrived as all the main streets were a big construction site and the nice street cafes were gone. I could hardly imagine how this place could ever be nice. There is the famous street corner with two bars showing episodes of Friends 24 hours (or at least 16 as they were closing at midnight). We rather watch several hours of Simpsons next door. The small river with Karst mountains in the back is nice and you should spend the extra buck to get a room with river view as we did. The town itself is definitely a disappointment, I expected a second Yangshuo, the place in Southern China and also labelled as a backpackers heaven is much nicer. The one thing to do in Vang Viang is tubing on the Nam Xong river. It's cheap and you can take your own time. We were there in the dry season so the current wasn't too strong and sometimes we had to swim to make progress down the river. All along the waterway are places where you can get beer and food that you take with you in the huge truck tubes you sit in. You can also get out for some 'fun activities'. I tried a flying fox from a ten meter high platform over the river. You hang on for about 20 meters speeding over the water and then at the end drop 5 meters down into the water. That was much more fun than expected, but just as at the waterfall the second time didn't go so well. Right after the start my right hand slipped off the handle, my left arm wasn't strong enough to hold on and I drop 10 meters down hitting the water right on my chest, which hurt for the next few days. After that I only used the swings over the water which weren't that high up. One morning we woken up at 4 a.m. by a thunder and I witnessed one of the greatest storms I've even seen from our balcony. Below us was the river, in the back the karst mountains, very heavy rain and lightning and thunder everywhere. There was not a moment without at least one mostly several lightning flashes that lit up the sky.
Our last trip in Laos was from Vang Viang to Vientiane (the capital city) back on the Mekong right across from Thailand. We chose to do the by kayak at least for some part of the route. We had five boats, three doubles with an Aussie/Swedish couple, two Irish girls and Olivia and me, plus two single with our guides. The river was beautiful but pretty slow so we had to paddle all the time. Oliver and I were always ahead of the others, Olivia did rowing at her college and I've done some kayaking before. The best part was a section with strong rapids where we shout through the water. I did this in a single kajak and are proud to report that yours truly was the only one who made it through all the way without falling out. That was followed by a nice barbeque and some swimming in the rapids.
Our days in Vientiane were dominated by Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year), the festivities last at least three days but rather than doing fireworks the big thing here is water. Like the water festival in Burma or Songkhran (Thai New Year) the general idea is to make other people wet. The basic form are big spray guns, nobody bothers with water pistols anymore. But it's also very common that locals set up road blocks in their street and empty a bucket full of water over everybody who comes by. You are suppose to stop and they pour it over your head and into your shirt, tourist or not doesn't seem to matter, in fact they seem to enjoy getting the foreigners wet even more. This was fun most of the time but we quickly ran out of dry clothes as we got soaked every time we went outside. Especially on our last day when we had to take an evening coach to Bangkok we tried to keep dry and avoided at least the big buckets. There were also hundreds of open pickup trucks cruising around the city fighting water battles with each other and the people on the sidewalk. Again they mostly used buckets as their main weapons. I really enjoyed this, much cooler than the private fireworks you get in Germany and much safer too, but then you wouldn't want to do this on December 31st in Northern Europe, the freezing water would kill you. We also got some water from above, during another rain shower I sheltered myself in a cafe and the rain was particularly strong. The gutters in Vientiane are half a meter wide and also half a meter deep and run along all the roads. After 15 minutes of heavy rain they couldn't cope with the amount of water and overflew to form huge paddles on top of them. The locals knew about this and walked around the paddles near the edges of the road but the tourists didn't and walked right through the paddles and therefore stepped right into the deep gutters. I surprised I didn't see anybody breaking their legs.
In general development in Laos is about the same as in Cambodia, a bit ahead of Burma but of course way behind Thailand. The infrastructure in the four tourist places is okay and transport between them is sufficient too. But I really enjoyed the rural north more and the boat rides, the small village and great scenery in the mountains. We met people who only went as far north as Vang Viang but I would rather do Louang Phabang and then at least one week in the north.
Wikipedia on Laos