From the Laos capital Vientiane full of culture to the remote 4000 Islands on the Cambodian border, we explored some of the most remote areas of this South East Asian gem as we continue our Stray Asia adventures.
Another day another bus, this time taking us to the capital of Vientiane. As we approach the capital city of Laos we stop off at another temple before rolling into the beautiful and utterly French-inspired city. We headed to COPE, a centre which houses some items and allows visitors to see a few short documentaries on the making of prosthetic limbs in Laos. The Vietnam War is something that had a huge impact on this defenceless and innocent country, and still today most of the east side of the borders are littered with thousands of undetonated bombs, often amongst the fields and farms. This has caused extreme pain and suffering in the many years since the war, as locals are frequently encountering the deadly items. The importance of raising awareness of this tragedy is vital to the continuing work that volunteers and staff from all over the world carry out in safely removing the bombs from the land. The Lao people suffered enough, and should not have to live in fear of losing their homes, families or lives due to a battle that they were quite literally the middleman in. The eye opening exhibition at COPE allows the visitor to appreciate the complexity in dealing with just a small part of this issue, that of helping those injured to recover and regain part of their normal lives. It’s most certainly worth a visit in Vientiane, as few other places will you really get a sense of the impact the wars have had on Laos.
On our way over to the hostel we stopped off at Monument Gate and Pha That Luang, the main temple, to appreciate the architecture and grandeur the capital has to offer. After a deliciously authentic dinner of ice cream at our favourite place, Swensens (kidding), and looking around the night market we turned in for the night. Compared to the historic Luang Prabang we visited previously it’s a strange place to consider a capital, there’s not as much history and it’s rather functional as opposed to being tourist focussed which makes it a rather practical city. It was unusual to see everything written in French however, it really reminds you on the colonisation that occurred all those years ago, and how that still influences life there now. Plus they’ve truly embraced the yummy pastries and breads of European heritage which is a welcome treat!
After stops for lunch and to see temples to break up the tedious bus ride, we eventually made it to the remote village of Kong Lor. Once we were settled into our cosy hut room we attempted to paddle a canoe to a nearby spring. After about half an hour of quite literally rowing in a circle and nearly capsizing, we gave up… Maybe next time!
Kong Lor is the teeniest village, where the only place to stay is the single resort we were at, with just a handful of locals and the one restaurant located in what appeared to be someones living room… Another chance to embrace the unexpected! Once back at the resort, the group played card games, the whodunnit game Werewolf, and drink improvised pina coladas kindly made as a treat for my friend on her birthday. It was a lovely chance to bond with our fellow bus companions, and without many activities to keep us busy we still managed to have a good time all together.
Temple stop and The Birthday Girl feat. pancakes
The following day we headed out to the main attraction of Kong Lor; the 7km cave located in the heart of Phu Hin Bun National Park. The cave itself has two entrances at different villages, and are connected by the Nam Hin Bun River flowing through the cave. Said to have been discovered by a flock of ducks (don’t ask), this is no ordinary cave, as its size alone is a marvel to behold.
Once we made our way inside, we understood why the journey would take the entire morning, as the enormity of the cave is truly remarkable. At points, the roof of the cave stands at around 300ft, and being plunged into darkness with just a head torch each, it was a miracle that our boat driver was able to navigate his way around the winding bends and many rocky obstacles that are along the way. We stopped occasionally inside the cave, the main stop was to wander the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that surround an emerald green pool of water, considered to be sacred to the local people. Back on our three man boat, we continued on into the cathedral sized cave, cruising along at quite a speed at times.
As we were visiting in the summer just before the full rainy season began, the water was at some points quite shallow and so we would be required to hop off once more, walk a little down the river while battling the heavy current and climb back in again to carry on down miniature waterfalls and round the sharp corners of the cave. It was pretty good fun, and once your eyes are adjusted to the light a little more you can really only stare in awe at just how incredible nature is.
Kong Lor Cave
Once returned from our cave trip, we were back to enjoy the remainder of the afternoon in the sunshine. Another failed paddling attempt later we were happy just napping in the sun and trying to avoid the millions of bugs swarming around us. Later that evening we all craved something other than rice and noodles, and so began our constant and never-ending discussion of food with the other passengers of the bus; burgers, pizza, pasta, roast dinners… You name it we wanted it! The burgers on offer at the resort would have to do for now, as we settled in for a stormy night feeling ready to continue exploring.
Our next stop was the charming town of Thakek. Our hotel was situation right on the riverfront, with a beautiful view of the Mekong overlooking Nakhon Phanom in Thailand. Like many places in Laos, this town was still not quite ready for a mass of young backpackers, and so we spent the day wandering the town, along the river and occasionally stopping for a much needed smoothie. Later that evening, our wish from the night before was granted and we found a wonderful restaurant where we were able to get delicious burgers.
The European influence was also apparent in this Thakek, as we stopped off on the way home for ice cream at a modern cafe. Thakek seems to pride itself on its sense of community, as we visited the night market in the heart of the town, where children could play, families could eat together and enjoy the live music together. We were aware that a storm was soon coming thanks to the hints of lightning, so after checking out the hotel’s rooftop view, we headed in for an early night and to get some organising done for the remainder of our trip. Cue lots of Googling and Lonely Planets guides!
View of Thailand from Thakek and the local traffic
Another day, another bus, we were headed to the even more remote town of Xe Champone in the Savannakhet providence. The beauty of Stray is their motto to go “off the beaten track”, and the evidence is shown in the willingness to take travellers to the more unusual places for tourists to visit. The locals of these small towns and villages well and truly put up with hoards of European explorers marching through their homes, and it is always important to stay respectful of their lifestyles and culture, and remember that not everywhere is like home. After all, getting out of your comfort zone is one of the joys of travel!
Along the journey to Xe Champone we stopped for a few unique activities before reaching our destination:
For one break stop away from the bus we visited Turtle Lake, which was a little different from what we expected. These turtles were more unusual than what normally springs to mind, and the murky waters of the lake meant they were pretty tough to spot. We got lucky however and made a couple of sightings of these interesting creatures! Just down the road we visited a “haunted” temple, which has since been abandoned following bombings during the war. Needless to say we didn’t hang around there for too long!
After making it to Xe Champone we visited Hotay Pidok, a temple situation on stilts over the river, where we were greeted by kind locals offering to dress us in the traditional skirts and lace sashes. We were shown into their fascinating library, where as many as 4000 Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves are archived. Although we didn’t enter the main temple buildings itself, this insight was a unique experience to appreciate Buddhism, and the small but important traditions that are kept.
Our final stop of the day was somewhere we had all eagerly anticipated for much of the day. Dong Ling is otherwise known as Monkey Forest, and is exactly what it sounds like. Surrounded by little cheeky monkeys everywhere, we parked up near the forest armed with bananas, and waited for them to take an interest. It certainly didn’t take long! These savvy little guys knew exactly what we were there for, and soon enough they were positively flocking to grab as many treats as they could. The smaller ones were apprehensive, but they soon caught on and realised we just wanted to say hi. Honestly, I could have stayed there much longer just watching them all scurry around, playing and chomping away. Definitely a highlight of the day!
Clockwise: Unusual items for sale at the market, Monkeying Around, Temple Dress, Turtle of Turtle Lake.
Moving on from Xe Champone, we headed further south to the busier and larger destination of Pakse. Our temple stop today was at the ancient Wat Phou Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for the incredible ruins, and vast size which provides visitors with a breathtaking view of the surrounding farm lands. We took the walk up the uneven and tall steps to reach the peaceful temple situated on top, and took our time wandering around the fallen statues which each have their own unique stories, before washing in the holy water that drips from the mountainside rocks. We also took this opportunity to make wishes, and learn our fortunes at the temple. This prompted an interesting discussion about karma and what lessons Buddhism teaches about morality. We all agreed that sometimes a more Eastern view of what is right can be greatly rewarding, and it left us with something to think about for the remaining bus ride.
Back on our journey, and after wandering around Pakse we took a drive to Tad Ngeuang Waterfall, and following a steep walk down we were able to enjoy a refreshing swim in the beautiful waters. This was a particular favourite waterfall out of the ones we had seen so far; if only for its size and the ability to sit right under the heavy water as it pours down at the base of the falls. Feeling pretty exhausted from the day we were ready for a delicious traditional Lao curry, followed by an early night.
Tad Ngeuang Waterfall
Don Det (4000 Islands)
Our last day in Laos was spent in the remote island of Don Det. This idyllic location is part of the 4000 Islands, part of the Champasak Province right at the South of Laos and once again right on the doorstep of the Mekong River. To arrive on the island the bus itself was ferried across the river, where we then changed to a passenger boat with our bags to make our way onto the one-street island. Although for most of our journey Laos has felt remote and definitely not what backpackers are used to, this was a whole different story. The small street was lined with bars, hostels, rental shops and places to plan the next leg of your journey.
The island seems to attract a particularly chilled demographic, keen on kicking back, relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere. We decided to spend a sunny afternoon hiring bikes, and searching around the island. It’s very easy to navigate, and hard to go wrong so we decided to just stick to the path following the river. Once we reached the bridge to a nearby island of Don Kong, we were told there was a fee for tourists to cross, and having left unprepared with no cash, we just cycled our way back at a leisurely pace, but just in time to beat the kids coming home from school on as they whizzed by on scooters!
After a final swim in the Mekong (and trying not to float away on the current), we had an evening of dinner, Lao Lao Whisky, and thinking back on our time in Laos. It’s safe to say that the best parts of Laos are definitely the undisturbed, remote spots full of culture, nature, and serenity.