We finally got to see Laos in May! It was tricky to fit into our schedule with the direction we always seemed to be heading, but after our time in Chiang Rai we took a bus to Friendship Bridge, the border between Thailand and Laos, we finally made it there. Once we passed through the border and paid the most expensive visas out of any other country (still don’t know why, Canada has been so nice to Laos!), the road swapped direction once again and we were on our way to Louang Namtha. The bus we took there was one of the strangest buses I have ever been on. I assume it was some kind of old school sleeper bus, as there were two levels, but there were no seats. Each side of the bus had sections you would book with one other person (solo travellers would be paired with a stranger) and it was just an open space to sit on the floor. There were a couple pillows but other than that there were no other amenities to make you comfortable. I was able to lay on my back but with how windy the roads were I’d still get tossed around.
The landscape in Laos was stunning. Large forested mountains towered over valleys of rivers and tiny villages, driving through the thick of it was pretty remarkable, and seeing the small outposts set up by locals on the sides of mountains kept me wondering how quiet and serene a life they must live. We only spent one night in Louang Namtha, as it was just a stop to break up what would be a 16 hour drive to Louang Prabang. Riding along through some of the windiest roads for anything longer than 6 hours is almost guaranteed to give me a brutal headache. The following morning we hopped on another bus, this time with actual seats to sit on!
In Louang Prabang my friend from home, Alex, came to visit us during his own trip in SE Asia. What a treat to spend time with someone we know! We meet so many like-minded people on the road, but nothing beats hanging out with someone who we share a bit more of a familiar history, and who we don’t have to start from scratch. We had only just arrived into Laos ourselves so all three of us could figure out the country together, however, it is still very similar to the other neighbouring countries. Naturally we visited some temples and did a lot of hiking around. There was a very cool bamboo bridge we crossed, and we took a tiny boat across the Mekong to walk through a village and had a small tour of a cave with a 7 year old girl and a monk. Laos is well known for it’s gorgeous waterfalls, and when we checked out Kuang Si falls it did not disappoint! Nearly neon green water, all chopped up into tiers before it flowed into a large pool where we took a dip. It started raining pretty hard when we got in, and even though it was about 30 degrees outside I felt so cold in the water! So I didn’t spend as much time in there as I would have liked.
After Louang Prabang we took a bus (which was so jam packed with massive bags of rice we had to climb to get out) to a smaller town Phonsavan. It’s known for it’s Plain of Jars, an ancient site that historians aren’t 100% sure what the jars were used for. It’s likely it was all for human remains, and there is proof for that, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. During the war this area of Laos was heavily bombed in order to restrict the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The US army did this by dropping MILLIONS of small “bombies” throughout this area for years, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, in relation to size, in the world. There were large craters in the Plain of Jars from the bombs, and information is widely spread to locals and tourists that there are still so many areas with UXO’s (unexploded ordinances) where they try to restrict foot traffic because there’s potential of setting off a bomb underground. This was fairly known in Cambodia as well, but it was next level in Laos just from the amount that the US actually targeted Laos. It’s pretty wild to see the direct effects of war on a country especially when they haven’t received an appropriate level of support to recover from that devastation. To this day families are dealing with deaths of their children and family members due to these UXO’s, and even if someone is just injured, the hospitals have very minimal education and supplies required to actually help them.
After just a few days in Phonsavan we took a bus, luckily not filled with rice this time, and made it into Vang Vieng. This town was well known for it’s wild tubing parties along the river, but after numerous tourist deaths a few years back the government implemented way more restrictions, making it a way safer and chill place to party. The three of us went tubing down the river and it reminded me very much of rafting down the Bow in summer in Calgary. We had a really good time, and it was Alex’s last day with us after about 10 days so it was a super fun send off! Said our goodbye’s the following day and it was back to the boring ol’ duo. However, we stayed in Vang Vieng for a good week or so after that and found some very fun treasures around the area.
We could have spent the entire time in Vang Vieng just seeking out caves and waterfalls since there were dozens just within a 10km radius of the town, but similar to temple fatigue, cave and waterfall fatigue is also very much a thing. One cave we went to was actually a small river, and we had to float on tubes pulling ourselves inside with a rope attached to the cave walls. It was a very cool experience, it was only lit by our small headlamps and once we got to a dead end, our guide got us to turn off our lights and be silent. Very spooky, and eerily quiet hearing only a few drips of water echoing far down the tunnel. One hot day we checked out a water hole we saw some locals hanging out in, and following some of them deeper into a cave going upstream it opened up to a larger cave, where you could climb up on a ledge and sit in the cool water flowing in from the ground, and then you could jump into the deep blue water, glowing magnificently from the light at the entrance of the cave. I have no pictures of this place, and it’s hard to describe, so maybe I just dreamt it but I’ll just say it was pretty magical.
A funny quirk with that town was also the street of bars that only played episodes of Friends on the TV’s. Bar after bar had the same show, different seasons of course, but the twenty-somethings loved it, myself included. We hung out at one bar multiple times because of Friends, but also because they made the most delicious pizza bread with real cheese and I’m sure the staff thought we were weirdos because we ordered it so many times.
Once our time there was done we went to Vientiane, where we stayed at a place pretty far away from anything but we rented bikes and got to ride around a lot every day. We mostly just took it easy there, got our visas sorted for Thailand, visited the Buddha Park, and found a Vietnamese restaurant with surprisingly good Pho. This city was right on the river dividing the two countries. It’s a big river, but looking across the water you could see Thailand, pretty cool. Our first stop back in Thailand was Udon Thani. There wasn’t much to do there but we saw some temples and enjoyed the convenience of 7/11’s once again.
Then we stopped in Phitsanulok hoping to find some hidden treasure towns in central Thailand, but it was nothing special. Most of our time was spent trying to find some good food with even a little bit of english on their menus. One day we checked out their Folk Museum full of old handcrafted animal traps and other antiques, that was really cool. We stayed there for only a few days before returning to Chiang Mai yet again. This city almost feels like a second home, we’ve returned to it so many times as it’s such a central point for other areas. It’s also just a lovely place with so much going on, there’s a great art and music scene and I just feel very welcome here.
That’s it for now, I’ll write a separate entry on how we spent a good chunk of our time here in Chiang Mai.