North to South: 3 Weeks of Travel in Laos

Over our first month of travel, we really did try to see too much and staying on the move created some larger gaps in our posts… So, with that said, here’s a bit of a catch-up piece to mark our experiences and impressions of Laos.

From Luang Prabang with love?

Bamboo bridge over Nam Khan
Bamboo bridge over Nam Khan

Luang Prabang is a beautiful city nestled around the Mekong River and Nam Khan. This world heritage city has many similar charms to the cultural hubs of Ubud and Chiang Mai – places where the ease of finding a glass of wine, a delicious meal and a yoga class are almost all too easy. The ‘Old Quarter’, in particular, is filled with restaurants, small cafes and galleries that would fit in better with the affluent parts of Manhattan or Buenos Aires – much more than the rest of rural Laos.

Many people come here to visit the numerous wats and surrounding waterfalls, such as the famous Kuang Si Waterfall, and we did enjoy the latter. We have, however, learned that we’re not really that into temple tours and nature is what intrigues us most.

Steets of Old Qaurter in Luang Prabang
Streets of Old Qaurter in Luang Prabang
Riverside cafes at night
One of the many well lit riverside cafes at night
Art for sale in Old Quarter, Luang Prabang
Art for sale in the Old Quarter, Luang Prabang – Even the artwork gets down with yoga!

Honestly, it’s a very peaceful and tranquil environment, but we were too early in our trip to truly appreciate all of the comforts. Instead of enjoying the appeal of some great food, we were craving something a bit more rugged and much less touristic. We had yet to traverse the country by crammed local buses and were yet to face the menu options of lizards or squirrels. For us, we kind of felt out of place, as if our backpacks left us underdressed for the party… That said, if we had put Luang Prabang at the end of our time in Laos, after being on the road for a few consecutive days in the sweltering heat, sweaty, sticky and covered in dust… well, we might just have embraced those comforts with calls for many more!

UXOs at Utopia bar/restaurant in Luang Prabang
UXO decoration pieces at Utopia bar & restaurant in Luang Prabang
Fruit displayed at roadside juice stalls
Fruit displayed at one of the roadside juice stalls at the not so authentic night market
Monks crossing bamboo bridge over Nam Khan
Monks crossing one of the bamboo bridges over the Nam Khan in Luang Prabang

So much of lasting enjoyment seems to come down to the timing and the place that you are in life or in your travels. It has taken us some time to figure out what we want as we travel together, but one valuable lesson that we’ve learned is that it doesn’t always matter if the city is overrun by tourists, if the prices are all inflated or even if it’s not the ‘crowd’ that we’re looking for. If we can find our own little oasis in any city, we are pretty happy. For us, that is one of those places not too central yet not too isolated and one where the local shopkeepers are friendly, not giving us the feeling like we are being taken advantage of… It seems somewhat particular, but pretty straight forward, yet this combination really affects our overall impressions of a place and how we view our travels. Still, we find ourselves constantly reassessing what we both are looking for along the way and it is a learning process.

Where the two rivers meet in Luang Prabang
Where the two rivers meet in Luang Prabang

Despite being able to discover our own little oases along the way, we did realize that we still really wanted to avoid the well trodden trail in Laos and that we wanted much more nature in our travels. We had heard great things about Luang Namtha up north and had even looked at doing some work there, but because of its increasing popularity as the next stop on the trail, we opted to go a bit further east to Nong Khiaw – a decision we are quite glad we made as it turned out to be one of our favorite places in Laos.

Tasteful quote displayed outside of an Old Quarter cafe
Tasteful quote displayed outside of an Old Quarter cafe

Finally, Nong Khiaw

For many, Nong Khiaw is nothing more than a sleepy, dusty, transient town where most travelers stop through to go on the popular ‘100 Waterfalls’ trek before taking a boat further up north… For us, we loved it.

River cutting through Nong Khiaw
The main river cutting through Nong Khiaw – Small docks on the bottom right for departures up north.

With a beautiful mountainous backdrop, refreshing river cutting through the city’s center and an extremely friendly and welcoming local crowd, it was the first place that matched the descriptions we read before; welcoming, beautiful and affordable. It was also one of the first places we had visited that didn’t solely cater to falangs/foreigners. Local general stores sold useful everyday items just like they had for years before – preferring fishing nets, flash lights and school supplies over every possibly conceivable western comfort for sale (a far cry from the 7-11’s scattered across SE Asia).

There seemed to be the perfect balance struck for us. Not too raw and not too overrun. There were still a handful of options for various restaurants (and we did make sure to take advantage of some tasty Indian food), but overall, it was a place that still retained its original identity – and it was that charm blended with the nature that made us enjoy it so much.

Indian colors painted on one of the UXOs decorating one of two Indian restaurants in town
View from our room in Nong Khiaw
View from our room over the first few days in Nong Khiaw

Many days were quite slow for us there, but our favorite memories were spending time building sand castles with a young boy on a riverside beach and going on leisurely walks along the river. I guess our wilder more reckless days might be passed? Still, it was a place where we got to feel like children again and will remember fondly…

Boy making sand castles - he had some serious skills!
Boy making sand castles – he had some serious skills!
Felt great being a kid for the day!
Felt great being a kid for the day!
Still trying to make sense of what mine was... as was I!
He was still trying to make sense of what mine was… as was I!

Is Muang Ngoi what we are looking for?

From Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi is a serene one hour boat ride upstream. Situated further up north, surrounded by even more green mountains and located by its line of bungalows and restaurants along the river, it is understandable how this destination received great write-ups in the Lonely Planet and other guidebooks. The main activity for many is swaying in porch side hammocks just letting time slip by while watching the river’s current take its natural course. It sounded appealing, but the main intrigue for us was our planned day of kayaking with a newly engaged Swedish/British couple that we really enjoyed meeting in Nong Khiaw (sadly one fell ill, which altered our plans in the end). Somehow we always seem to gravitate towards other couples… I wonder if it’s the same way for other married couples…

Main 'drag' in Mong Ngoi
The main ‘drag’ in Muang Ngoi – too many banana pancakes on sale for the number of tourists

Overall, the town itself didn’t rub us entirely the right way. Instead of keeping a balance between local lives and those of onlookers, we found a town that had pushed out  the local population from the first two streets along the riverfront for bungalows and restaurants all serving the same menus and a local staff that was begrudgingly catering to Western comforts. Maybe it was our timing in the peak season or just witnessing the rapid development of the tourism sector in which that balance we had previously witnessed had been lost. Whatever the case, we found that the charm that we so loved in Nong Khiaw was missing and it became a good lesson for us in reassessing what we were looking for in our travels.

Our kayak north of Mong Ngoi
Our kayak that we paddled upstream from Muang Ngoi – about a two hour paddle up north

The boat ride up and the day kayaking did make our trip worthwhile, as a whole. If we hadn’t taken the kayaks up the river on this trip, we would have missed out on the numerous butterflies that hopelessly fluttered around our faces on our own private beach. We would have also missed out on one of my favorite days leisurely taking refreshing dips in the river, quietly reading and writing in solitude surrounded by nature. We still got to feel like children and Devika was sweet enough to entertain my poor performance at hopscotch… Those days of full hearted, childish laughter are the ones I love most about travel and the ones that make me feel so grateful to be spending this year traveling with my life partner. Nature and laughter are a great combo.

One of many butterflies sharing the beach with us
One of the many butterflies Devika captured sharing the beach with us
Failing at hop-scotch
Failing at hopscotch

The start of the bumpy ride going south…

From Muang Ngoi in the northern mountains to the central caves of Kong Lo, we finally got our wish of local transport… One could almost describe our trip south as slightly masochistic. From our initial departure along the roadside in Nong Khiaw as locals and foreigners looked upon us as if we were some wild animals in a zoo, to the peering, curious eyes of some 50 Laotians on our first (of many) local buses, we were bound for a long and bumpy ride. The initial leg to Vientiane was an almost sleepless 12 hour journey, followed by a day of rest and an early departure from the capital in hopes of availing a 6 hour ride at half the price offered by the travel agents. Needless to say, we didn’t quite make it ‘early’ enough and ended up spending the same amount as we would have going the much easier and more comfortable, private route (pointers for travelers in another post). I’ll gladly admit my faults on this one and would have to say that getting the best deal is NOT always possible while traveling in Laos.

Kong Lo Caves 

We had heard great things about the Kong Lo Caves – described as an eerie 7km underground river that twists through the darkness, a site not to be missed…

Entrance to Kong Lo Cave
The far entrance to Kong Lo Cave

I suppose if we had gone directly to the tranquil Kong Lo Village instead of taking multiple transfers to the former ‘transport hub’/’jumping off point’ town of Ban Nahin (our base for exploring the caves, which was still an hour away), we might have had a different impression of the area. What we found in Ban Nahin was an interesting mix of a town which had constructed many guesthouses and restaurants, but had almost no patrons to show for it. Where the cave lacked in eeriness, Ban Nahin showed potential… It was almost like a California ghost town as a result of the newer homestays and direct transport to Kong Lo Village – the village literally at the mouth of the cave. What this new direct transport created was a tourism sector that almost entirely skipped Ban Nahin, except for ourselves and maybe one or two other eclectic travelers that appeared to be traveling with outdated guidebooks also. In all honesty, we couldn’t blame other travelers for being seduced by yet more emerald green swimming holes and the ease of direct transport to Kong Lo village. Despite not being able to fully enjoy the fruits of our labor in Kong Lo Village, we did really enjoy the friendly (yet extremely quiet) vibe in Ban Nahin and the main attraction of the Kong Lo Cave.

Swimming area outside Kong Lo Cave
Swimming area outside Kong Lo Cave’s main entrance. A short 15 minute walk from the guesthouses/homestays in Kong Lo Village. A bit harder to appreciate if staying in Ban Nahim.

Though the caves were much less spooky than I had hoped and there were no fist sized spiders to fend off, this tunnel system was quite impressive in its sheer expansiveness. The huge caverns and tight turns of the river are explored by long tail motor boats humming along in the darkness and the boatmen are quite skilled in navigating these waters. Outside of one section where we got off to walk along the illuminated stalagmites/tites, most of the time we spent exploring the caves by boat with only our head lamps as our reference points. As a result of the shallow waters and traveling up stream, there were more than a few sections where a bit of muscle needed to be put in to get the boat up some shallow rapids/falls. Being the boatman’s extra hands was something I really enjoyed and reminded me of fond times with my Dad – it really made me miss how much I used to love being on the water, which I guess proved timely as we were headed to ‘Four Thousand Islands’ next.

Long-tail motor boat inside Kong Lo Cave
One of the long-tail motor boats at the far entrance inside Kong Lo Cave
Devika exploing the paths inside Kong Lo Cave
Devika exploring the illuminated paths inside Kong Lo Cave

Four Thousand Islands, Don Det

I wish there could have been a more direct way of getting there, but after a full day of local transfers, a night of rest and yet another sweaty morning of local transport via songthaws, it was fair to say that we had our fill of being on the move and were ready to stay put for some time…

Boats outside of Don Det in the Four Thousand Islands
Boats outside of Don Det in the Four Thousand Islands

No better place than the Four Thousand Islands, a network of islands situated on the Mekong River just north of the Cambodian border. This area is relatively remote, yet very much on the backpacker scene. For me, it was that idle time to read that I had been craving – one of those places where you are forced to slow down and your hammock is your friend. With a good book in hand, The Moon Is A Fierce Mistress (it always amuses me the random books that you pick up along the way), two comfy hammocks on our porch’s bungalow, a very friendly guesthouse owner and a refreshing river a stone’s throw away, I was ready to put life on pause…

Small guesthouses and restaurants scatter Don Det's southern tip
Small guesthouses and restaurants scatter Don Det’s southern tip
Sunset side of Don Det
The sunset side of Don Det – much more tranquil than we had heard

It surprised me that despite not being gainfully employed for some time and already being on the road for the better part of a month, that it would be at this point where I finally felt like there were no longer any to do’s and that we were finally able to pause… On one level it is blatantly obvious – you’re on an island in a tropical environment, if you don’t feel like you can unwind here, then where can you? On the other hand, was this well known backpacker destination really what we had been looking for? Hadn’t we talked about something deeper? It took the two of us some time to adjust to the abrupt halt in our movements, but the pace of our travels was hardly sustainable and our bodies were grateful for the rest. More than the numerous banana pancakes and happy shakes that were available, what was most useful for us was to have time to reflect upon our first month of travels – what worked for us and what we were looking for over the next few months. That stillness and that time together felt great and through all the ups and downs of our travels, we left feeling much more prepared for this next leg of our travels in Cambodia – still, no idea what would lie ahead, but looking forward to the unknown…

Fisherman off of Don Det
Fisherman heading off at sunset in Don Det
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