Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Meandering down the Mekong

Greetings from the rather warm Vientiane,

We are currently relaxing in a local park whilst we wait to transfer to the airport to return to our second home - Hanoi, Vietnam. We have had a fantastic week or so in Laos and would both love to return.

Our adventure actually started in Thailand where we had a few of nights in Chiang Mai. We didn’t actually do a lot of the classic things that Chiang Mai is known for. The hiking was out of season and the trip we wanted to do ‘was definitely running’ according to our hostel… but then wasn’t! We were tempted by the elephant sanctuary style trips but they were well out of our budget. Instead we used the opportunity to recuperate a little after quite a lot of rough travel – overnight buses and trains. We did get a unique experience which was to attend the annual flower show in Chiang Mai. This was actually a really lovely experience – there were large floats made of flowers in various shapes including a giant cat. Inside the park there were big flower displays such as a beautiful display of lilies. It was really pleasant to look around and the smells were sensational. Another of our activities included walking well over 10km around the old walls in the city with a stop off at the wonderful Hide Out café on the way. We also had a couple of really nice meals in Chiang Mai including one by the river. On top of this we tracked down an English Pub to watch England’s success against Italy in the Six Nations. Chiang Mai, for the both of us, is one of our favourite places we went in Thailand. It was clean, the roads were less crazy, and it was easy to navigate with some really good food and drink to top it off.

After Chiang Mai we headed to Chiang Rai on the bus. By the time we got there it was too late to see places like the White Temple so we grabbed a drink at a Cat Café… where Rob decided that cats are actually pretty cool. In the evening we had some white wine and Italian food before getting an early night. We were only really in Chiang Rai as a stopping point before crossing the Thai border and the next day was going to be a long one.

The following day we got ourselves on the first bus of the day – 6am. It cost us 100baht each to get taken all the way to the Thai border. At the Thai border we exited and then got a shuttle bus across the Friendship Bridge to the Laos border control. We filled in all our paperwork for the Laos visa, paid our money, and then waited to get our visas. It was a pretty efficient process at the Laos border and in a short space of time we were presented with our visas. We then took a tuk tuk to the pier to purchase our slow boat tickets. We got these from a little office, ignoring all the people trying to sell us trips. The price of a ticket was 210,000 kip which gave us two days on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. We got ourselves seated and settled in for the long day. The overnight stop was in Pakbeng which we both really liked. We had booked a lovely guesthouse near the pier with speculator views of the Mekong River. The boat had left at 11am and arrived in Pakbeng by around 6pm. We made sure we had plenty of beer and food for the boat and the time seemed to fly. It was a thoroughly pleasant way to travel between the two countries and we would actively encourage it.

We must give a shout out to Taylor’s Tracks – her blog really helped us get ourselves on the slow boat successfully and without using the expensive tour companies that many travellers seemed to be using (Taylor's Tracks). For anyone attempting this trip we would advise printing off a copy of Taylor’s blog post in case you get stuck. All of her price estimations and information was accurate. As she had said the process at the Laos border was nothing to worry about – you fill out two forms and they will show you which ones (you get these from counter 1). You then return you forms with your passport and visa money and they will pass it through to the other counter (counter 2) where they get your visa put inside your passport. When we arrived at the pier we got sandwiches for 15,000 kip and nice cold beer in a bag of ice – we went to the café literally opposite the steps that take you to the boat ticket office. On our boat the car seat style seats Taylor described were there and they tried to allocate seats by ticket number. A lot of westerners just ignored this rather rudely and therefore the whole system did not work. We were near the engine but that was fine – it wasn’t too loud and we were near the bar and toilet. We were on the slow boat during February and for us we felt the weather was quite cold so bringing a jacket is a good idea.

The morning after we were in Pakbeng we rocked up to our boat to get on our way to Luang Prabang. Taylor is correct that they will literally wait for everyone. We were infuriated by the rather hungover looking group of backpackers who turned up an hour or so late! We literally sat there for them whilst the boat staff seemed to be ringing around the guesthouses. The boat trip was shorter this day but Becky managed to squeeze in more beers then was surprised when we arrived in Luang Prabang. She got so nervous about how much beer she had that she didn’t think she could walk the plank to get her off the boat onto land. Of course, she was fine and despite denying she was a bit tipsy she fell asleep within two minutes of arriving at our accommodation. We stayed at a really lovely guesthouse.

Within a short space of time of being in Laos we both felt more at home. The Laotian people feel more similar to the Vietnamese than the Thais. They were so friendly and kind, and the price of beer was back down to a level we like. There was far less hassle from tuk tuk drivers and people flogging sales at you and the whole vibe in Laos felt cool and relaxed. They are also helped by the most spectacular scenery – mountains EVERYWHERE, clear blue skies, and during February it is warm with a light wind – perfect. The first night we grabbed a delicious dinner at the lonely planet recommended Rosella Fusion before heading to bed. Nobody will be surprised to hear we ordered steak (their speciality). The next day was set aside to explore Luang Prabang. We went up to the view point on Phu Si, visited the Royal Palace Museum which was interesting, and generally soaked up the atmosphere. In the evening we went to another Lonely Planet recommendation (Dyen Subai) where we tried some local delicacies, we both particularly enjoyed the River Weed with eggplant dip. During the day, we had booked onto a trip so after a quick visit to the night market we got ourselves to bed.

The trip took us along the Mekong River to a whisky village where we made a number of purchases and tried lots of very strong Lao Whisky. According to the Lonely Planet this is actually illegal in Laos although largely unenforced. From this village we went to the Pak Ou caves to see all the Buddha statues and enjoy the steep walk up many steps. To be honest we found this a little underwhelming and may have missed it in hindsight. We then got back on the boat to be taken back to Luang Prabang where we then got a minivan to the Kuang Si waterfall. This was before waiting over an hour for the bus and then the tyre bursting along the way. We have learned that going on organised tours tends not to work. It was worth the palaver because the waterfall was beautiful. Rob jumped in off a tree and we went for a swim in the freezing cold water. We tried a really nice restaurant that evening called Lao Lao Garden where we got to drink 2 cocktails each for £1.50. They contained a lot of Lao whisky. It was the first place we were offered a welcome drink. The Laotian people often do this, which we think is another sign of what a hospitable people they are. The next day we got a mini bus to Vang Vieng – after ensuring we had our delicious Joma Bakery baguettes on us. The journey was scheduled to be 7 hours and we got there in perhaps 5 which was a welcomed and great surprise. The road is interesting along the way, very windy and occasionally you can see parts where there have been landslides. We both managed to nap despite this.

Arriving into Vang Vieng we checked into the beautiful Maylyn Guesthouse bungalow we had booked – it had the most beautiful views and at $13 a night we would thoroughly recommend it. We sat on our terrace and immersed ourselves in the nature whilst sipping on a Beerlao. After this we headed out… on quite a long walk… to find the recommended restaurant was shut and being renovated. We had a bit of amusement along the way at the ‘air strip’ which had hot air balloons and microlights taking off yet you could walk across it, drive, and the locals had set up shops and even a sort of bus station. Not exactly our idea of a landing strip but useful that we could cross! We looked up reviews and ended up at the Irish Bar which actually had really nice food and some great Lao cocktails. It also had some very friendly Irish staff and we took full advantage of their happy hour before heading back to our bungalow. During our wonders, we had booked onto a trip for the next day, which turned out to be the best organised trip we had been on.

The following day we turned up, got picked up on time, and went to all the places we expected to go to in a timely fashion. We started the morning at the elephant cave which has a stalagmite shaped like an elephant (allegedly). After this we went tubing in the sleeping cave which was actually really good fun even though we got soaked in the freezing water. We couldn’t really imagine tubing all day despite this being an enjoyable experience. We then got driven to the riverside for a lunch before heading on a kayaking trip. It is safe to say we had a slight breakdown in communication kayaking but got through it. The Nam Song River is beautiful but not very fast so the rafting and kayaking there is a little tame. The views were, nonetheless, stunning and it was at least a relaxing paddle down the river. At the end of the river we stopped for a drink and then were taken by tuk tuk to one of the many blue lagoons in Vang Vieng. The blue lagoon was crystal clear and just divine. Both of us jumped off the top jumping platform which was from a tree you had to get up by a dodgy bamboo ladder. As Rob has pointed out Becky was one of the few women that gave it a go… and she even got a little cheer. Our parents will be happy to hear that before jumping the higher jump Becky did a lower jump and Rob went in off a swing rope so we could ascertain the depth. The answer to that being extremely deep, so deep we came nowhere near the bottom so jumping is fine in the blue lagoon and pretty safe. We swam around for a bit and took lots of nice photos on our underwater camera. We will be sure to develop these when we are home.

We then made our way to the grass to relax in the sun and dry off with a beer. It was really relaxing and we both got even more of a tan. We were then efficiently whisked back directly to our bungalow where we packed up and relaxed. We also made friends with a cat Becky named Coffee whilst we were there. Yet another cat experience that brought Rob closer to liking cats. He even noticed Coffee was dehydrated and set her up a plastic water bowl to drink from. It was all very cute. She spent the whole time on our terrace during the stay. That evening we tried the Jewish Lao restaurant allegedly ran by a Lao Jew. We enjoyed the food so much that we felt it only polite, when we still didn’t feel completely full, to try the kebab place up the road. They were both pretty good and we definitely felt full after this. In defence of this greed, it was cheap and we hadn’t eaten much all day. We also finished off our bottle of Lao whisky on our balcony this evening which was tasty. This was a final night in Vang Vieng. It was a beautiful place, quite touristy and we fear it may ruin it somewhat but definitely worth a visit, even if just to walk across the shaky, dodgy, toll bridge which scared the crap out of Becky.

The following day we got the bus to Vientiane where we checked into our next hostel and probably our worst. If you are visiting probably best to avoid Orange Backpackers Hostel. Rob described it as being like a prison. We arrived earlier than expected and went to grab a coffee and get Rob to work on his blog post. We then met our two friends from Hanoi, Hannah and Ed, for a lovely dinner and then drinks at Easy Bar. The Egyptian host gave us a couple of free drinks and we had such a good time we totally lost track of time. At one moment, it was 7pm and then it was 2am! We put the world to rights with many conversations about Brexit, consent, nuclear weapons and so on. It has been a real pleasure to meet two such intelligent and kind people and we really hope we continue to see more of Hannah and Ed. They are off travelling round quite a few other locations now such as Thailand and Sri Lanka and we wish them the best in their travels. The following day we met them for pancakes as it was Pancake Day! This turned into paninis, pancakes, and wine. They then went to tackle to Thai Consulate and their visas (thankfully successfully) and we went to see Patuxai (a Lao L’arc De Triumphe). We grabbed a bite to eat and then ended up back at Easy Bar with Hannah and Ed and yet again lost track of time.

We have both been pleasantly surprised by Vientiane – it is a really nice city with a very French feel, and much to Rob’s delight lots of bakeries. Tonight, we will fly to Hanoi where we hope to see some old friends and celebrate tet with the Vietnamese. After five nights, we then fly to Phu Quoc for a few nights on the beach before transferring to HCMC and then Bangkok where we have one night and then return home on 25th February. We have both really enjoyed Laos and would definitely recommend it as a travel location. We will certainly endeavour to be back.

Until next time!

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