The rich culture and untouched country side of Laos awaits as we make our way down the Mekong River for a 2 day boat ride, ending in the old capital Luang Prabang. Join us on the next leg of our Stray Asia journey!
On arrival into the Bokeo providence capital of Houay Xai we could already see a remarkable difference compared to the comparatively westernised Thailand. The locals here seemed much more relaxed, living their daily lives rather than obsessing over how best to gain from unassuming tourists, the homes seemed more like actual homes, there was not a hostel in sight! Best of all was the beautiful landscape we were blessed to view. All around are lush green fields, the mighty Mekong River flowing in the distance and a sense that life here will be much calmer. Well, except for the life-or-death experience of driving a full tuk tuk of people and luggage over a narrow, rickety wooden bridge!
We went for a humid but pleasant evening walk to the village temple, and were even given the chance to talk to a few young monks as they finished their daily chores. After experiencing a whole new variety of bugs during dinner (and trying to get to grips with the new exchange rate of GBP to Laos Kip) we made it back to the guesthouse just in time to realise why it had felt so humid that day. The most fantastic thunder and lightning crashed around us to accompany the hailstone-sized drops of rain. It made a surprisingly refreshing evening!
Ban Pak Nguey
The following morning we were off to experience the popular method of boat travel in Laos, and boarded a magnificently large boat to take us down the Mekong River. The six hour journey to our next stop further down the river meant plenty of time for reading, relaxing, eating, sunbathing, enjoying the stunning views, and in my case; blog writing. After a brief swim in the murky Mekong current we dried off and made our way from the boat to the area of Ban Pak Nguey.
The three villages that make up the area are partnered with Stray, a company that provided us with transport, a local guide and unique experiences such as the homestay we were about to enjoy. In exchange for allowing a bunch of clueless travellers stay in their homes every so often, Stray encourage and assist in developing the village by providing financial aid for certain projects. In this instance, the village used the money to build a new meeting hall as a place for the community to enjoy social gatherings and discuss future plans for the village. We were staying in the third village, adjacent to the small temple (what would our days be without a temple visit?!), and after the local kids showed us their school, we were ready to sit down for a delicious alfresco dinner cooked by the wonderful women of the village.
Following dinner, we were treated to a Baci Welcoming Ceremony. The ceremony involved prayers from the village elders, lighting candles, and eating sweet treats. Following this formality was my favourite part of the ceremony: where each member of the village approached every one of us and tied a small piece of white string around our wrists as they said a prayer of good wishes. It was incredibly touching, and we could tell that each local really meant the kind words they said as they performed such a simple but meaningful act, and many held our hands which made us feel so welcomed. They are such kind and generous people, we really did all feel as though we’d been blessed to meet them all, and although we couldn’t translate the prayers we were told that each of the strings is to represent each component of our souls: thought to protect us, bring health and luck, and remind us of the country on our further travels. It’s safe to say it certainly did this, as it is recommended to pick off a string and give it to nature in some way throughout a journey. We did this by throwing them into bodies of flowing water, tying them to trees, and giving them as gifts in temples. I still managed to take a good few home with me, so as to ensure the WHOLE of my trip was blessed, and although I gained some seriously questionable tan lines, it was absolutely worth it.
Following the wishes, it was the final stage of the ceremony to drink the infamous Lao Lao whisky that we had all been dreading. The whisky is homemade from rice in barrels in the village, and is extremely popular due to its sharp, bitter taste, and its high alcohol content… As a small shot was passed around to each of us, the aim was we were required to take as many as possible, because each shot represents a body part that is allowed to enter heaven. I think the most we managed was four, so at least all my limbs are safe!
The remainder of the evening was spent enjoying each others company, playing games and somehow drinking more whisky (the good stuff, thankfully). We then turned in for the night, but it was clear that none of us were going to get a good night’s sleep as an almighty storm battered down on the corrugated roofs. The peak of rainy season during the summer was truly upon us!
Once back on our boat the following morning, and enjoying yet another long stretch of Mekong travel we stopped off at 1000 Buddha Cave. This historical site is nestled into the cliffs right on the river, and requires some steep steps to make it to the temple at the top. The Buddha statues inside are still plentiful, despite years of being ransacked for their precious metals. It was still a sight to behold however, and the locals who look after the cave do an excellent job to ensure that tourists are still able to enjoy and respect the site.
We hopped back on the boat for the last time, as we had finally made it to the ancient capital of Laos – Luang Prabang. This UNESCO World Heritage Site (a phrase we would come to be extremely familiar with in SE Asia) is a beautiful town steeped in history and tradition, and there are several known activities to participate in whilst visiting. Our first evening was spent walking the steps of Phousi Mountain, where we were treated to a gorgeous view of the sunset overlooking the city itself, and the rolling mountains in the distance. We’ve been blessed with witnessing some truly stunning sunsets on this trip, and this was definitely up there as a favourite, if only for the majesty of the view from a temple on the top of a mountain!
Once we were back in the town, we wandered the night market of Luang Prabang. The market atmosphere was so different to that of the Thai markets: here felt much more genuine, the stall sellers were less pushy and the items were more authentic rather than repetitive and tourist driven. We managed to use our ever-growing bartering skills to get some lovely gifts and souvenirs, before we turned in for an early night before the bitey bugs really started to get us and the usual evening thunder storm began.
Views over Luang Prabang from Phousi Mountain during sunset
Kuang Si Falls
Our only full day in Luang Prabang was spent taking a very rainy, muddy and hilly 3 hour hike to Kuang Si Waterfall. Our guide accompanied six of us and, while my hiking boots were never going to regain there former colour, it was so much fun. It was a great chance to talk make new friends and to explore some of the real forests of Laos. Once again, we were attracting bugs more than I thought was possible, but once we got to the waterfall itself it all seemed worth it, and the sun even came out!
We all enjoyed a well deserved break swimming and jumping into the waters, and finally getting rid of all that mud under the waterfall! Afterwards, we went to see the rescued bears that are kept nearby as part of a project to protect them from poachers who use their blood in ancient medicine techniques. It was a lovely way to end the afternoon, to learn a little more about current issues in Laos and what is being done to fix those problems. Sure enough, we were pretty shattered from such a physical day, and so an early night was needed once again. In hindsight we wish we’d stayed longer in Luang Prabang. We didn’t nearly see it all, and as the old capital of the country there’s lots to do there. However I’m pleased we went to the waterfall as a priority, because it really was amazing.
Our next bus ride was a long one, but to be able to stop off at times and enjoy some extraordinary views certainly makes up for it. This time, we were stopping of at the infamous “Loo with a View”, or otherwise known as Phou Khoun Observation Site:
Next the bus was taking us to the up and coming backpacker spot of Vang Vieng. This unassuming tiny town is known for being the party and adventure capital of the country. Despite that seeming to be all there is to do during your visit, there are some unusual quirks of the town too. Almost every bar or restaurant in the area seems to have lounge seats to recline on, and they’re all playing the same thing on the big screens…. Friends! Now, I imagine this is no mere coincidence, but is done on purpose, however I’m not sure whether this is all that plays, day in day out for the whole year, but for the duration of our stay that was what we could watch! I was certainly not complaining, as an avid Friends fan I could tell which restaurant was on which season without even having to look at the screen (I’m a total Friends nerd, I know).
After relaxing in the afternoon to watch the sun go down, and laugh at the tourists tubing down the rapid flowing river, we headed out to dinner as a big group. This was likely to be our last time all together for a while, as many of the group were choosing to stay on longer in Vang Vieng to make full use of all the adrenaline junky activities available. While it seemed great fun, both Emily and I decided it wasn’t really for us and we were much more interested in the cultural options further down the trip.
After dinner with the gang we all went for drinks where the speciality is free drinks before 9pm… I’m not a big fan of whisky, but I quickly became one! We ended up having a great evening together, and even won a ruthless game of Beer Pong against a group of Korean friends. Go Team Europe!
The following morning as we said our goodbyes to the bus folk, we wondered if we’d make a mistake to move on while all those we knew stayed put. The bus pick ups only come on certain days and so if tight for time like we were, planning ahead is essential to maximise time in the places you choose. Although we didn’t anticipate would be a problem, there are plenty of places we’d have loved to stay for just one more night but we needed to start planning ahead and knowing that the extra days we did have would have to be spent somewhere really worthwhile. For us, Vang Vieng just wasn’t somewhere we wanted to stay longer, we wouldn’t have felt this would be the best use of our time so hoped we’d find somewhere further along to really enjoy. Although it was sad to see the others stay, we ultimately made the right choice to carry on.