10.02.2011 - 14.02.2011 26 °C
I was relieved in some ways to be leaving Vietnam. It had been a long three weeks in one country and I was looking forward to experiencing a new one. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time greatly and have no regrets. Although Ho Chi Minh is a city I have no desire to return to, other stops such as Mui Ne, Hoi An and Halong Bay made it all worthwhile. I arrived into Laos via Vientiane and was immediately impressed. The staff were friendly, spoke good English and the airport was far more developed than what I was expecting. We checked through and got a Tuk Tuk. Ahh the Tuk Tuk – there are none in Vietnam (I’m assuming they’re banned). I must admit I missed them a little bit. To add to the thrill, the Tuk Tuks here are a different variety to the ones you see in Thailand and Cambodia. The carriage where you sit in is much larger and you sit directly opposite one another as opposed to next to each another. I read in the guide that this is because some Tuk Tuks will take additional passengers if going on a similar route. In fact you could see many of them transporting up to ten passengers at a time for trips/excursions etc.
Once again I’m typing this entry from the airport as I wait to fly back into Thailand for the final leg of my Asian trip. The last five days have been brilliant but hectic. I had originally planned at least six nights if not more in Laos but in order to save some money of flights I had to cut it short. Before I go any further, here’s a little breakdown of information on Laos…
• 1 Euro = Approximately 10,000 KIP
• Sabai Dee = Hello
• The capital is Vientiane
• Geographically, the country is the same size as England but only has a population of six million
• Just under 20% of Laos is completely covered by forests/natural habitat
• Little is known internationally about the country in comparison to its South East Asian neighbours – however they are quickly developing a strong reputation for eco-tourism activities e.g. kayaking, caving, hiking, tubing etc.
• Laos citizens are well regarded for being laid back and relaxed – they are more focussed on family, friends and enjoying life than making money
• Laos is one of the safest countries in the world
• Laos is one of the top 20 poorest countries in the world – however having visited it I am surprised, at least from a visual point of view
One of the first things I noticed in Laos is the difference in temperature. The past two weeks have pretty much been mild at best so it was nice to experience some heat and humidity again. We arrived into Vientiane and unlike before, we hadn’t booked a hotel in advance. It took a little bit of time wandering up the streets to find a place that had room but it wasn’t too long before we were able to check into a hotel. It was ok, nothing special but it did the job. I had been unable to upload any photos to Facebook due to a silly censorship rule enforced in Vietnam so I took the afternoon to post just under 200 photographs online. I quickly remembered the reason why I like to do it as I go along as it took so bloody long! That evening I took a wander around the town and had dinner. I met up with Carly after and we went through our itineraries for Laos. We were both loving Laos but wanted to do it a slightly different way. Therefore we agreed to split up for a couple of days in between so I could visit Vang Vieng and she could spend more time in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I had only one night in Vientiane so it was an early start on Friday in order to do as much sightseeing as I could before my afternoon bus. Carly and I visited a number of temples. My favourite one was Wat Sisaket. Another good stop was Patouxai which is their version of the Arc De Triumph in Paris. The ceilings inside are nicely decorated and we were able to climb to the very top to take photographs of the view.
A few hours later I was on my way to Vang Vieng. It was a bit strange travelling alone for the first time in Asia but it wasn’t long before I met another traveller from Australia who was on the same way up as me. Through some sort of fluke, I got lucky with the transport as we were driven up in a very modern mini-van with leather seats and plenty of room to sit back and relax. The roads were quite bumpy as expected but I managed to sleep for a small part of the journey.
I had heard some mixed reports about Vang Vieng in Veitnam. Most people visit it to go tubing (whilst drinking) – this is well renowned amongst travellers in South Asia. I was expecting some sort of Ibiza style party atmosphere on arrival so I was pleasantly surprised to see it was a very a laid back beach-town style resort (but there’s no beach nearby, only the river). It reminds me of Byron Bay in Australia but in an Asian/Laos style. There are no clubs – mainly just restaurants and small bars. Most show Family Guy and Friends on a constant loop which I found amusing. I checked into my hotel and Matt (the Australian traveller) invited me out for drinks with his three friends that he was meeting later. A good fun evening chilling out with a few drinks was had.
The next morning I was up and ready to tubing. I met with the guys from the previous night at about 1pm, had some lunch and off we went. For those of you don’t know what tubing is about, it essentially involves riding a large rubber tube down a very long and wide river over a morning/afternoon (or both) and stopping off at various bars on the way. The staff throw a tyre into the water to help drag you in and free shots are offered with almost any drink. Some stops have water slides and swings and most pump out dance/chart music. Karaoke is offered at others and as it starts to get dark many will light camp fires so people can keep warm.
I was a little bit apprehensive beforehand but I must say I probably had the most fun afternoon in a long time. Each bar had only 15-20 people at it so they were never too packed. It was hilarious to see that 90% of people appeared to be English! As with any event involving drink, there were gobshites about but most were in the same boat as me i.e. just out to have a fun day, take a break from all the temples/sightseeing and enjoy the experience of it. It reminded me of a college freshers week event, only the majority tended to be in the 25-30 age category. At the first stop I decided to have a go on one of the swings. There were two attached, one that you could swing back and forth before slowing down and dropping into the river. The other just went straight down. For some reason, I went with the latter and without thinking accidentally fell on my stomach. It was quite painful! In fact, even today it hurts a little. I think I may have bruised ribs so I’m going to give it a couple of days before I decide whether to go to a doctor or not. Dropping 30 feet down on a cable into water isn’t something I get to do every day so it was hard to resist. Next time I’ll get the swinging one and make sure I hit the water with my feet first! Despite the initial pain I was on a great buzz and after a few drinks the pain numbed.
The whole tubing experience is like being in a giant water park for adults. It’s just such a bizarre idea but strangely works. I must note that 1-2 people die from it each year but most cases have involved travellers tubing after dark and being absolutely hammered to the point where they can’t swim if they fall in. Therefore if you’re going to do it stay with a group at all times, don’t get too drunk and get out when it gets dark. You could see a lot of people just enjoying floating down the river without stopping for drinks and older travellers in canoes and kayaks. The current in the river is quite weak and a couple of places are shallow to the point where you have to get out of your tube and walk for a little bit before you can get back in. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to risk bringing the camera with me (most people don’t) therefore I have no photographs from the day. However I Googled a couple of images from the same river online which you can see below.
That evening, I got back to my hotel and somehow managed to shower and change myself while drunk. I met the gang at a local Indian restaurant, ate and retired to a quiet bar to watch episodes of Family Guy. By 10pm I was fit for bed and it wasn’t long after that I was fast asleep. The next morning I had to take a six hour bus up to Luang Prabang. I was sad leaving Vang Vieng. If I had the time, I would have spent two additional days here – one to do caving/kayaking and another to go tubing just one more time! It really was that fun.
The bus ride to Luang Prabang was absolutely awful. In fact it was the worst one I’ve had since leaving Ireland last September. I had booked a ‘VIP’ bus but there was nothing VIP about this. There were about 50 of us on the bus and no air conditioning at all. It was a sauna! To add to this, the roads were covered in potholes. I’ve never experienced so many bumps in the space of six hours. Finally, with my ribs still sore from the day before, every bump was painful. Luckily, there were a nice couple from England sat next to me and they gave me some painkillers. One positive point about the journey was that it went through some stunning mountainous scenery. If you could ignore the fact that one dodgy swerve could result in instant death, it was quite enjoyable to take in the view. We also had two stopovers beside some villages where you could observe the locals.
I arrived at my hotel at about 6pm. The English couple from the bus (Andy and Helen) were also staying in the same place as me so that evening we went for dinner and a wander around the night market. I got myself a nice souvenir and headed back. Carly had arrived by this stage and was understandably exhausted. She had the same bus journey as me but having come directly from Vientiane it was twelve hours long! Poor Carly. We got to bed and met up at 8am the next day to head on a one day tour.
This tour brought us out to the Pak Ou caves in the morning. To be honest, it’s overhyped. The cave itself isn’t that deep and the most interesting part for me were the dozens of religious ornaments that were placed inside. The journey to the caves was via boat on the Mekhong river – my main sightseeing regret was not doing a one day river trip on the Mekhong back in Vietnam so this was a plus.
That afternoon we visited the Kuangsi Waterfall (which randomly included a bear sanctuary). This was spectacular – as I’ve said before, pictures just don’t do some of these sights justice but you can get a good idea from the snaps below.
That evening Carly and I met up with Andy and Helen. We went for dinner, played some cards and like most evenings I’ve had in Asia, it was another early night! The last six weeks have been spent mostly sightseeing and travelling. However that will soon change as my last two weeks will be more relaxed with less moving around. Hopefully, I’ll get to party a little bit more too. I wish I had more time in Laos. I’ve loved it here. The country has so many beautiful parts and for me the people really made it. Locals just can’t be bothered running after you to sell you something or screw you over financially. Over the past five days I’ve been offered a Tuk Tuk twice. Don’t forget, in Cambodia I was offered a Tuk Tuk 28 times and that was over a space of ten minutes! The Tuk Tuk driver wished me the very best of luck dropping me off today (this has never happened before) and within ten minutes of entering the airport a tourism official asked me to fill in a feedback form on what I thought of Laos. You can clearly see that they are going out of their way to improve the experience foreigners are having here. This country is completely underrated. People don’t talk about it enough. In terms of South East Asia, it’s at the top of my list of countries that I want to re-visit for a longer period.
I arrive into Koh Samui at 4pm today. Carly will be meeting me there on Thursday as she has two extra nights in Luang Prabang. I’ll have a few nights at Samui before crossing over to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon party on Saturday.