- The chiller capital Vientiane
- The only thug in Laos
- Bowling Chinese style
- Our unavoidable Lao lesson in Paksan
- The red sun of Laos on Route 8
- Getting ready for Kong Lor cave
- Laos unknown jewel
- Beautiful Laos Scootering
- The Larp´s revenge
- Back Route 8, back for some feasts
I am in Tah Kaek now, southern Laos and just came back from a massive standard night market feast, meaning a huge bbqed Mekong fish, a bbqed chicken, some sticky rice, a banana pancake and a melon shake, quality! We have been going south since I wrote last, from Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, and have seen among other stuff one of the most amazing natural wonders I ever had the chance to see.
The chiller capital Vientiane
Last time I wrote we were in Vang Vieng, tubing capital of the world! We left it without having actually been tubing but with a lot of nice memories as we went climbing and caving. Both Yassin and Jamie got cuts on their feet, and the next days we had to take care of Yassin´s foot all the time.
We took a bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. There is probably no other capital I can think of which is as chilled as Vientiane, as it has only 300 000 inhabitants and these are all Laotian, a people who generally likes to chill. It is on the Mekong and similarly to many other places in Laos you can see Thailand on the other side of the river. It is connected with Thailand by a bridge, one of the two existing between the two countries.
After we arrived, looking for a guesthouse was not very easy, considering that we are travelling with a 7 year old guidebook and in Laos so much has changed since then? Vientiane was boiling hot and we spend most of the day in an amazing rooftop bar, overlooking the Mekong and sipping ice-cold Beerlao. I also realized only then that it was Yassin´s last day with us :((((. The bar was really cool but you could see the influence of neighbouring Thailand: prostitutes! And many of them. but they were quite funny and we played a few 2 on 2 games against them.
As it was our last day together we had one last massive night market feast with loads of grilled fish and chicken and went to a bar to have some drinks. I just love Laos. I mean here you can go to a bar and with 5€ each you drink like a king. We ordered a bottle of gin with soft drinks and had a guy whose job basically was preparing us drinks and making sure the ratio of gin, tonic, lime and ice was always right and the glasses always filled up. We had a really good night but at the same time I found it quite sad, as I have never spend so much time with one person for such a long period. I mean we have been together 24/7 for more than 2 months.
The only thug in Laos
But his bus was only scheduled for 5 pm and we had an entire morning left. It started in the worst possible way. We wanted to check out and suddenly the guy at the reception wanted twice as much as agreed upon the day before. I asked him 3 times that day and he always told me a certain amount, but apparently that was his scam. He took out a piece of paper with the price written on and then threatened us with his boss and the police. At the end of the day it´s just 8€ more and I don’t care about the money and it’s not worth getting into any trouble in a dictatorship like Laos, that’s why I told him that he is a very bad person and will be unhappy, paid and took off. But it just annoys me so much as it is exactly because of people like him that people might get a wrong and bad impression of such an honest, friendly, incredible country. Also as a traveller if you experience so many bad things (like in Jaipur or in Phuket you just turn more suspicious and stop trusting locals, which is not how it should be. But I got rid of my anger quickly because Laos is really not a place to be angry, but to enjoy!
Bowling Chinese style
Vientiane is the capital and you can see Laos and communist flags everywhere. Also all of Laos’s political and spiritual institutions are spread on a very little area and there is literally a ministry every few metres. It is heavily influenced by the French and you can find brasseries and patisseries on every corner, and even according to David their stuff is really good!
With Yassin we went visiting Laos´ main monument, a huge golden stupa which you can find on every symbol and bill of Laos. It was nice but I have to admit I am not a big fan of monuments as they are just mere buildings, you can’t feel anything when visiting such a place and it just serves as a nice background for some tourist pictures. After this Yassin took off, and the group was reduced to three, David, Shir and me.
Vientiane is not that great apart of its nice location and our plan was to head south as soon as possible, but because it was already quite late we had to spend one more night there. And what do Laos’ people do on a standard night? They go bowliiiiiing! We had been already in Vang Vieng but that was a place build for foreigners who need to drink all night and according to the laws can’t do so after 11.30 except in bowling alleys. But this one was truly Laotian! We found it finally in the middle of nowhere and were definitely the only white people in there. Upper middle class Laos’s people come here to have beer, eat good food and play some old-school bowling while listening to cheesy Laos love pop. And the prices, I just love it. I mean you pay 3€ each and can play 3 games and have a few beers, just so much fun, after the first game where Shir and I literally missed every shot we got better and in the last game we kicked David’s arse! Good stuff! It’s nice to travel with Shir as one it gets cheaper by sharing normal double rooms everywhere, and two it’s refreshing for a group of guys who forgot the meaning of the words “napkin” or “toilet paper”.
Hilarious Laos pop
I already told you the rooms in Laos are just such good value. And now that we share between 3 we can get amazing rooms for less than 3€ each every night. A TV is usually available showing German bundesliga 24/7 on one channel, but that’s not the best bit. After a night out and a few Beerlao there is literally nothing better than turning on the TV and switching to Laos´ MTV. Every single song is a melancholic, depressing love song. We obviously don’t get any of the lyrics but the clips are just the best. They would go like this: guy works on the rice fields, at the end of the day he catches a fish and wants to give it to the woman he loves. She refuses the fish, he kills himself. Or couple is in a parking house, people try to kill the woman, husband jumps in front, is shot and dies in a hospital, and woman gets depressed and eventually kills herself. And seriously, every single song is like this, and the people here just love it! So yeah whenever we have a TV (like tonight) we spend at least an hour watching there clips, good stuff!
Our unavoidable Lao lesson in Paksan
So the next morning after a little odyssey to get to the bus station we finally got on a bus directed south. There is a road, road number 8, which Shir´s sister has travelled on a motorbike a year ago and apparently is simply incredible. It starts from the little town Vieng Kham to then go all the way east to the Laos-Vietnamese border at Tha Bak. So our plan was to head to the closest biggest town and hire some scooters and then drive with them for a few days. That’s why we decided to go to a town called Paksan.
After having arrived there we realised that it was a dusty provincial town which no tourist would ever stop at, why should they? There was exactly one place to sleep at and literally nobody spoke English. Now imagine us trying to explain that we wanted to rent scooters without knowing neither the word for scooter nor for rent. Moreover, the concept of renting as such does not exist for Lao people. Either you have a scooter or you buy a scooter, renting is not within their dimension. So yeah we had to realise quickly that our plan was not feasible and that renting a scooter in a place without tourists is impossible. Slight change of plans then.
In Paksan we also started to really learn Lao as without you don’t get anywhere. We had to find out the time of the bus the next day and they told us weird numbers, which we had to figure out in our guidebook. Also haggling is not that easy when all the numbers are in tens of thousands. But it´s fun and we are learning more and more Lao. I was looking for grilled chicken on the market and at one point we sat down as we saw a woman bbq some meat. When she brought it to us we had to realise that it was pure pork fat and skin, nothing else, not even a little bit of meat. But we just pretended it was meat and ate all the way through, massively helped by Beerlao!
The red sun of Laos on Route 8
The next morning we got up at 4am, as, if we had understood correctly, there was a bus to the town we wanted to go to at 5. At the bus station there was no bus, but a guy came to us and made us understand the vehicle going was not a bus, but a tuk tuk. So we got onto this pickup and started a 5 hour ride.
In Laos they have one main road, from north to south which we have been following until now. Any road going elsewhere is reached by pickups which bring deliveries and if requested people. So we got onto this pickup filled with tons of rice, parcels, a scooter and one other guy and started the journey. It was absolutely amazing as Laos has a very peculiar landscape when you drive south. In the west is the Mekong, at the same time the constant border with Thailand. On the other side of the road lie swamp lands and then endless jungle and the limestone mountains marking the border to Vietnam in the east. As we took off so early we were able to see the sunrise in the east. It was a foggy morning and the red sun rose from behind these very steep jungle limestone mountains lighting up the fog in red. I didn’t sit at all on this ride as I stepped on the little grid at the back of the pickup and stood there for 5 hours holding onto the rail in front of me and enjoying the view. Safety regulations do not exist in Laos.
After a while we took a turn eastwards and left the main north south road. The rock formations look a little bit like Brice Canyon in the us, with its sharp edges and peaks everywhere, but at the same time just covered by impenetrable jungle and full of cliffs with stalactites hanging down from the top. It’s a completely inaccessible land, primary forest and no one lives there. When you drive through it seems as if you entered another world.
It got tricky when I wanted to take pictures as I had to take one hand off the rail and the bumps on the road nearly made me fall down the pickup :)
Getting ready for Kong Lor cave
We ended up in Nong Coc, another even smaller provincial town very close to the Vietnamese border where we tried one more time to rent scooters, but dropped the idea even quicker than the time before, as it´s just impossible. The only source of knowledge and orientation we have on the entire area was one single chapter in a 7 year old lonely planet. But they wrote about one guesthouse where apparently somebody spoke English. This guest house was in Khoun Kham and the reason why we wanted to come here is Kong Lor, one of the most magnificent natural wonders of Laos, and that means something. So according to our guide book it is basically a mountain where a river made its way all through the entire thing and created a 7500m (!!!) long cave in the mountain which you can cross on a wooden ship. I know! How incredible does this sound? But first we needed to find a way to get there!
At the guest house they could finally help us and with the little English they knew they told us how to get there and we got scooters!!! We always take two now as Shir doesn’t mind sitting in the back and it´s way cheaper to share! But it was quite late and we only wanted to go to the cave the next day. However, I can’t have a scooter and not drive it; it’s just too much fun! So we took them around some villages that haven’t seen foreigners in ages and it’s just so nice to drive through rural Laos. Everybody smiling, children running after you, herds of cows and water buffalows in the way, simple villages, people fishing, working on rice fields, the constant “sabadiiiiii” and all of this while the sun is setting in this jungle mountain scenery, unforgettable. At home I taught the other two how to play Skat, an amazing but very complicated card game for three people and we have been playing ever since. But in our minds we were already thinking about the next day: Kong Lor!
Laos unknown jewel
It is a 50 km ride to Kong Lor and the ride itself is also worth mentioning. I don’t know the geological background to how this area was created but this is how it looks like: a plain of rice fields, which are the greenest green I have ever seen, as harvest period is in one week. On the edges of the plain these mountains rise up directly from the fields. There is no incline before; they just emerge with their limestone cliffs in the middle of the green fields. You drive on a plain straight road for 2 hours through small villages and it’s just soooo much fun. But Kong Lor!
So we got there and dropped our scooters. We then paid for a wooden longtail boat with two men on board. You merely just fit into this boat and it’s so flat that water swoops in all the time. The guy at the back is in charge of the small motor and the one in the front of lighting the way with a torch. We got into the boat and were in the middle of the jungle on a muddy river. You start driving upstream and enter this cave under a limestone cliff. At the beginning it could be a cave like many other but what follows is a one hour ride through a cave which at some points is up to 100m wide and 100m high. It’s just soooo huge. I don’t really have words to describe it because we were sitting in this boat and for one hour in a pitch black cave, stalactites coming all the way down to the water, stalagmites reaching up for up to 30 m and you are speeding through this cave.
At some point we even got out of the boat and they made us wander around the cave for a bit before getting back. It’s quite an experience and sometimes the water gets too shallow for the boat and they would tell you to get out and wade through the stream for a few meters, but it’s really strong and well, in a pitch black cave! I just wanted this ride to never end, I don’t know if anywhere else on the planet you can find something like this, and also because not more than 30 tourists a day come here and it’s in Laos. You can experience this natural wonder in such an authentic way. I mean imagine the same site in Europe: safety regulations, escape corridors, just impossible! Here it´s 2 shitty head lights, 2 guys who don’t speak any English but know exactly what they are doing, a wooden ship as trustworthy as a Thai tuktuk driver and a pitch black 7500m cave. Incredible. We arrived on the other side and thought the ride was finished and that they would pick us up somehow and bring us back on a tuktuk. But no! We got back through the cave! And this time downstream! He was literally speeding down and I enjoyed every single second in this cave!
Beautiful Laos scootering
Outside we basically didn’t speak for a while, still digesting what we had just seen and went for food. In Laos restaurants do not exist. Laos’ people eat their soup in the morning and rice with meat at night. On the streets you can literally just find soup stalls. There are no snacks, no coffee, no tea, and no menus with different foods. These only exist in “touristy” places. The two things you can always find in any place are soup and Beerlao! But next to the cave they had a place selling different foods and we tried lots of stuff and shared everything. This one typical dish we ate was really good but had consequences for the following night…. it´s called Larp and is minced chicken with mint, chilli, onion, ginger and lime. Shir didn’t eat it and David and I ate a looot of it. But to the consequences of this meal later!
First, we had an entire ride back to our guest house! Soooo much fun! The road is not that wide and at one point a herd of water buffalos came towards us, the bull leading them. If you have seen water buffaloes you know just how huge they are. David and Shir ahead managed to get past them but when it was my turn this massive bull came running towards me shaking his head and horns. I literally had to escape him and accelerate to get past him, and that while I was trying to take pictures and with the camera in my left hand! Adventure!
After a very pleasant ride home we stopped at a viewpoint on route number 8 to see the sunset in this beautiful scenery. I burned myself 3 (!!!!!) times within 5min at the exhaust pipe of David’s scooter. So stupid, and basically have these 3 round blistering brown patches on my calves now. Well scars that will remember me of this amazing day I guess!
The larp´s revenge
David was not feeling well. We went for our standard dinner with Beerlao but he said he had to lie down. first we thought his stomach was hurting because on the way back Shir sitting on the back of his scooter hugged him so strongly, as she was a little bit afraid, but soon we found out it was not that. Being a specialist in food poisoning, I soon realised what it was! He started puking and stuff literally came out of every single hole of his body! But we did everything right: Shir gave him foot massages all the way, which apparently worked very well, I talked to him and made sure he was distracted and he finally fell asleep, but it was quite horrible, I mean he didn’t beat Yassin´s record of more than 40 times a night on the toilet, but half of that amount he definitely got! It’s still weird how he got it as me and David ate exactly the same that day, we shared every plate and I even ate his meat in the morning soup as he didn’t like it. I just think that my stomach is used to tougher stuff after 2.5 months of travelling and as I had some problems already I built anti-bacteria.
Back on Route 8, back for some feasts
Well he slept a lot and apart of Kong Lor there is literally nothing to see here. I was quite happy he was feeling better the next day and convinced him to do the journey to the next stop southwards. We had a nice bus or better tuktuk ride and arrived in Tah Kaek, a rather big city (which in Laos still means absolute chilling) on the Mekong. It’s very nice, as there is a night market right on the Mekong selling all my favourite bbqed stuff. Also tomorrow we are renting scooters again and taking route number 12 eastwards towards Vietnam. Apparently there are some amazing caves, natural swimming pools and waterfalls waiting for us. We are taking quite a lot of time to head south as Laos is just soooo incredible.
Cambodia will be a relatively short stop, Phnom Penh and Angkor and until then we want to enjoy the ride south while heading to the Four Thousand Islands area. This marks the border with Cambodia at the south and is a delta of the Mekong which builds a lot of small islands. No roads and vehicles on these, just hammocks, food, sunsets, jungle and chilling! And Irrawaddy dolphins. These are freshwater dolphins living in the Mekong. They are pink and you can spot them in that area. Well we heard stories from fellow travellers which were just too good to be true and I can’t wait to get down there. But on the way there is lots of nature and food to go through. I saw these bbqed frogs on the market, tonight I am going for it, and they looked quite tasty!
Guys hope you are all doing fine! Laos is just amazing!