Tag - luang prabang

Northern Laos

Northern Laos
Northern Laos

With lush forests, high plateaus, sparkling waterfalls, caves, mountains and rice fields, northern Laos is intensely beautiful. This area of Laos is very diverse and offers travellers a range of different experiences. Although travelling through this region is challenging, the rewards are significant and a warm welcome awaits those who venture off the tourist trail to explore the villages and small towns scattered throughout northern Laos.

This is where you will find the mysterious Plain of Jars, the enormous stone containers that cover the landscape. This is the perfect place to go trekking, especially around Luang Namtha and Phongsaly, while the Gibbon Experience offers visitors a rare opportunity to view these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.
This region of Laos is home to many of the hilltop tribes, each with their own unique styles of dress, culture and belief systems. Exploring northern Laos provides to opportunity to get to know a little about this interesting people and discover traditional village life.

Although this area has only been open to tourist for around 10 years, there are already a number of vibrant tourist hangouts in northern Laos. Top of the list is Vang Vieng, where travellers can indulge on Western food, explore the caves and float down the river in a large rubber tube. The nearby temple town of Luang Prabang is also particularly tourist friendly and there is plenty to see and do here.

Adventure sports are popular in northern Laos and this is a good place for white water rafting, hiking, cycling, rock climbing and a number of other activities. Simply walking through the countryside is a great way to spend a day or two as the scenery is always striking and many surprises await the adventurous.

The mighty Mekong River flows through northern Laos and into Thailand. A good way to continue exploring is to take a slow boat from Luang Prabang along the river into Thailand. The journey offers spectacular views of Laos and the chance to stay in the pretty village of Pakbeng along the way.

Types of Transport in Laos

types_of_transport_in_laos_1
Types of Transport in Laos
Types of Transport in Laos

Laos has only been open to international visitors for little over a decade, so you cannot expect to find the spectrum of travel options available in some of the neighbouring countries. There is no rail service and although most of the roads are now paved vehicles can be old and unreliable. The secret to successful travel in Laos is to allow plenty of time and don’t worry too much if things don’t go exactly to plan. Just sit back and enjoy the journey as you watch the stunning scenery slide past.

Plane
This is of course the most convenient way to travel, although not necessarily the most rewarding and certainly not the cheapest. The national airline is Lao Aviation and there are regular domestic flights from most major towns and cities such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Pakse and Oudomsay. There are even weekly flights from smaller towns such as Luang Namtha, Sayaboury, Houeixay, Sam Neua, Saravane, Lak Xao, Muangkhong and Attapeu.

Taxis
Mainly restricted to Vientiane, taxis can be both metered and unmetered. It is also possible to hire taxis for the day if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing.

Tuk-tuks and jumbos
The Lao answer to the taxi, these small and somewhat rickety motorized vehicles can be found all over Laos and are a good way to get around. Fares are generally negotiable, so make sure you agree the price with the driver before setting off.

Buses
Public buses run around large towns and cities between towns and villages throughout Laos. They tend to be rather small and cramped but quite reliable. There are also slightly larger tourist buses available for a slightly higher fee.

Mini Buses
These are a more comfortable way to travel if you are following the tourist trail between places such as Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.

Boat
The mighty Mekong River flows through Laos and travelling by slow boat is a great way to see the country, while speed boats race down the river, much to the delight of thrill seekers. Daily services run from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai.

Bicycles
A great way to explore the countryside is by hiring a bicycle at a tourist hub and simply cycling away.

Car hire
Although private car hire is possible, it is generally more trouble than it’s worth. A better option is to hire a car with a driver, which can be done through most hotels or tourist agencies.

Sayabouri, Laos

Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos

Also known as Sainyabuli, this pretty province is situated in the northwest of Laos, to the west of the Mekong River. Surrounded by limestone mountains, rice fields and forests, this is a great place to explore the countryside and experience the traditional Lao way of life.

Most travellers overlook Sayabouri on their way to nearby Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but peaceful Sayabouri is a great place to relax and discover the natural beauty of the areas such and waterfalls, caves and forests.

As you wander around Sayabouri you will discover a large number of pretty temples to explore, and Wat Ban Thin, Wat Ban Phapoun and Wat Ban Natonoy are probably the largest and most popular.

A great day trip destination is the Nam Phoun National Biodiversity Conservation Area. This enormous forest contains a large number of high peaks and climbing to the top provides excellent views of the region. The conservation area is also home to a large number of animals such as the Asiatic black bear, elephant, gibbon, Malayan sun bear and Sumatran rhino.

The people of Laos have been using elephants in the forestry industry for centuries and Sayabouri is one of the few places where you can still see this practice in action, which makes a refreshing change from viewing the mighty beast from behind bars.

A good time to visit Sayabouri is during the annual elephant festival, which is held over two or three days in the middle of February by the Lao PDR National Tourism Authority to encourage the use of elephants in tourism-related activities. There are around 200 elephants in Sayabouri and during  the festival more than fifty of them take part in a procession through the town. The festival is a vibrant affair with much drinking, dancing, fireworks and boat races.

More than 10,000 people travel from all over Laos to take part in the elephant festival and this is a great time to see Laos people at their best as they dress in traditional costumes, share food and drink.

Although Sayabouri is much quieter the rest of the year you will find a warm welcome whenever you arrive and there are some interesting places to sleep and eat.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of Laos and is situated at the meeting point of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers in northern Laos. Most travellers in Laos make it to this large and inviting city at some point during their journey and this is a great place to spend a few days.

Luang Prabang Province is considered by many to be Laos’ cultural and heritage centre and here you will find a large collection of Buddhist monasteries, temples and monuments. The town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers some stunning examples of French architecture and traditional temple art.

Surrounded by dense jungle and sparkling rivers, Luang Prabang Province is extremely beautiful. The earth is a rich brown colour and to the north rocky mountains make an impressive backdrop. Trekking is popular here and there are a good range of activities available such as rock climbing and boat trips.

Among the largest and most impressive of Luang Prabang’s temples are Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Visoun and Wat Ou Tay, while the 24-metre high stupa of That Chomsi is an impressive sight. For spectacular views over the city climb to the top of Phu Si, which is also one of the best places to watch the sun set over the city.

There are plenty to see and do around the province. 30 miles north of Luang Prabang city is the cave of Tham Ting, which is filled with large Buddha images and is a prominent place of worship for the local people. The cave is situated right on the river and combined with the two hour boat trip to get there this is a great way to spend a day.

Another good day trip destination pretty the Tad Sae waterfall and Kuang Si waterfall, while the National Museum is a good place to learn more about the local culture and history. Topped by an impressive golden-spired stupa, Luang Prabang’s former royal palace has been transformed into the Palace Museum, and here you will find an impressive collection of regal artefacts and royal portraits

There are a large number of cheap guesthouses available in Luang Prabang and plenty of restaurants serving international food. A great time to visit is during one of the country’s festivals, when the streets are filled with colourful and noisy processions.   

Getting around Luang Prabang is easy and this is a great place to take it easy before venturing into the more remote areas of Laos.

Slowly Down the Mekong

Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong

In Southeast Asia, smug backpackers parade their Laotian transport horror stories like war medals. Mention Laos to a group of travelers and you will no doubt be entertained by a playful one-upmanship, with stories of buses catching on fire, boats capsizing, innocent tourists becoming unwitting drug mules. Each survivor’s tale is a testimony to their own fearlessness. Now I’m no backpacker princess, I’ve endured my share of spiders in the bed and pickpockets in the markets. But even in the adventurous travel game, the risk of injury sends me clutching my first aid kid like a baby blanket. This cautiousness was tested when I crossed the Thai-Laotian border into Huay Xai, a tiny border town that people enter in order to leave again. Here, the travel options were a spine-rattling bus, a deafening speedboat, or 2 full days on a longtail slowboat. And so I signed on for a two-day slowboat down the Mekong, from Huay Xai to the reputedly charming Luang Prabang. For better or worse, it would provide an up-close introduction to Laos.
Day One

My fellow boaters and I have stuffed the vessel with enough baguette sandwiches, Pringles, and water bottles to last us days. Also aboard are every model of ipod, ipod nano, and mp3 player possible, six copies of The DaVinci Code (in six different languages), and two dozen Lonely Planet books. Armed and ready, we set off down the river.

The land around the Mekong is mostly unspoilt, with a few sparse hilltops that are clear-cut for local farming. It’s a peaceful change from the hustle of Thailand, seeing the countryside unfold at each bend in the lazy river. With an economy dependent on agriculture and a topography where arable land is sparse, the land surrounding the Mekong accounts for a good portion of Laos’ rice production. This is a staple of the Laotian diet as well as its economy, and in a country with limited roads and no railways, the river is a hub of transport. And yet, while the Mekong is a hub of sustenance for the country, today the waters are calm and the scenery is tranquil.

The boat stops on a sandy bank and local children bustle on board, their arms full and voices loud. Cold soft drinks, Beerlao and water; cigarettes, cookies, and potato chips, and the odd bag of pineapple, are all for sale by the quick and persistent children, whose fearless vending tactics make them tiny, pushy adults. I start to wonder what poor impressions the Laotians have of a Western diet. Apparently, they have been led to believe none of us.

Biscuits and snacks are passed around as we sail on. I barely notice the darkening sky as we dock in Pakbeng, a tiny riverside town ripe with English-speaking vendors and foodstalls stocked with more Western goods. At the rickety wooden dock, the whole street seems uniquely catered to

slowboating tourists on their evening stopover. The slow parade of backpack-laden figures spills into town, everyone happy to be up and moving after a long day of sitting on wooden benches. Back at my hotel, other slowboaters sit drinking beers at the open-air restaurant. The hustling noise of the town, vendors yelling, dogs barking, old cars coughing, makes me eager to be back on the calm river again.
 
Day Two
 
In the morning, there’s camaraderie on the boat as cheerful but weary travelers compare guesthouse notes (mine had Indiana Jones bedsheets, but only a trickle of cold water in the shower) . My hunch to arrive early proved correct – there are limited cushions on the seats today, but my boatmates are getting creative with sleeping bags, towels, and sweaters. No one comes onto the boat today to sell snacks. Instead, we are all are quietly occupied with books, diaries, and card games. Some people are at the back, cold bottles of Beerlao in hand, chattering in that good-humoured way that large beers allow.
 
Two days on the Mekong is a vivid introduction to Laos, in terms of scenery but also character. Here, the pace is steady but relaxed, the breeze cooling, the landscape fantastically unspoilt. Apart from the splash of the boat’s wake, and the occasional tinny Jack Johnson tune from a backpacker’s ipod, the only noise comes from the odd roaring speedboat, splitting the calm. Their racket confirms our thoughts: to roar speeding through Laos would be all wrong. Go crashing through a country and you’ll miss the fine details; the mountain goats on clifftop, the thatched huts dotting mountain peaks, the clusters of children splashing and waving on the riverbank.
 
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Taking it Easy in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Tourists arriving off a 2-day slowboat bustle around the town, eager to stretch their stiff legs. Trekking enthusiasts use the town as a base point for their ventures north into the dense jungles and tribal villages. Buddhists and curious scholars flock to Phou Si, a sacred hilltop site where Buddha’s footprint is still pressed into the side of the mountain. Luang Prabang may be a mere stopover point on your trip through Laos, but this town merits a few days for exploring. Veteran travellers praise it as a place they’d visit again and again, UNESCO named it a heritage site, and KhaoSanRoad.com applauds it as one of Southeast Asia’s most charming sites.

The remnants of French colonization are still visible on Luang Prabang’s main streets, where colonial architecture coexists with the gilded or teak points of traditional Laotian buildings. Old churches stand beside older wats, and the result is a picturesque mix of architectural styles. While the city is in rapid development thanks to tourist exposure and foreign business, it still maintains a picturesque, European feeling. On a clear day, the city’s winding streets and pretty rivers make it a photographer’s dream.
 
For accommodation, Luang Prabang has a competitive guesthouse market, and touts will greet you no matter where your arrival point may be. The Merry Guesthouses (1 and 2), on the northern end of the downtown, are fantastically clean, spacious and quiet, with kind and helpful staff. Those looking for a view of the Mekong should try Vong Champa Guesthouse, which is clean, cosy, and impressively cheap.
 
By day, the Phou Si mountain offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, as well as ornate Buddha statues, a Buddha footprint, and a solemn cave shrine. Near the main street, the former royal palace of Haw Kham is the stuff of postcards; opulent shrines, murals and furnishings, showing many different traditional styles of Laotian art and decoration.
 
For a bit of downtime, L’Etranger is a two-storey gem with a used bookshop/book exchange on the bottom floor and a comfortable teahouse on the top, which plays smart artsy films on weeknights at 7pm. Located on the north side of Phou Si mountain, the great selection of books, teas and snacks make it well worth a visit.
 
Those looking to get out of the city should book a taxi or rent bikes to get to Kuang Si Falls, 30km outside the city. These perfectly blue, multi-layered falls are set amidst lush jungle, and tourists may find themselves lounging all day in these pools. At the entrance, by the odd yet heartwarming bear zoo, stalls of food and drinks ensure that visitors will not go hungry.
 
Come nightfall, restaurants illuminate their patios, inviting travellers to eat and drink while people watching on Xiang Thong, the main street which hosts a vibrant night market. Here, tourists stock up on anything from handmade quilts to ubiquitous Beerlao T-shirts. Foodwise, baguette is a local specialty, and many restaurants go the mile in western offerings by boasting full French menus, with wine and cheeses among its fare. While the food is indulgently delicious, cheaper and fresher fare is available at the many night markets in alleys branching off Xiang Thong. Here, a vegetarian buffet of fresh produce from the Laotian countryside will cost a mere 5000 kip. These markets host a more local nightlife, where Laotian families gather to eat at tiny plastic tables.
 
Though the city is relatively quiet at night, there are still a handful of good bars. Young and thirsty tourists flock to the funky Hive Bar, beside L’Etranger, or the breezier Laos Beer Garden. When the bars close at midnight, tuk-tuk drivers are ever-available to take tourists to Vietnam Bar, an after-hours speakeasy of sorts with good music, plenty of seating, and the liveliest crowd in town.
 
Though Luang Prabang serves as a stopover point for many, its languid pace and compact downtown make it an easy spot to relax. In the midst of the eco-tourism that makes Laos so famous, this city is a great place to spend a few days sipping good coffee, exploring old buildings, and feeling immediately at home in Laos’ most welcoming town.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.