Vang Vieng and Vientiane

Vang Vieng, about two-thirds of the way from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, is the outdoor activities centre of Laos, but is also as known as the place where rather too many young backpackers have died after hitting their heads on rocks or drowning while rafting on the Nam Song river. So much so that Lao people began to think the town had been cursed. It’s cleaned up its act a lot, but there are still plenty of bars

Vibrant Night Life at Vang Vieng

and we were happy to be staying in the tranquil village of Ban Huay Yae immediately across the river to the west (see below). There’s a toll (west-bound only) on the bridge, but you can avoid this by using the footbridge from the centre of town, just north. Incidentally the town itself did not really exist before the CIA built an airstrip for covert operations during the Vietnam War; this is now unused but still exists as a bizarre gaping hole in the centre of the town.

Rafting is very popular, and you can rent bikes, scooters, off-road buggies (very popular with Koreans, it seems), and even some three-wheeled Segwayish things (why?); you can also go rock-climbing and hot-air ballooning. However, our chosen outdoor activity was to cycle a 28 km loop to the west, through dramatic karst scenery with plenty of caves to visit. Beware! Health and Safety is still not a big deal here, so be prepared to climb on rough rocks and flimsy wooden ladders, and it’s best to bring your own head-torch if possible – there’s someone to rent you one at most caves (for 10,000 kip – about £1) but you can’t rely on it. En route we stopped at a small cafe in a wonderful location and had a very connecting chat with the husband and wife as we were the only guests.  They managed to rustle up Twinings tea and fresh milk to revive us for the rest of the journey, which was rather bumpy at times and tiring in the heat but well worth it for seeing how life is lived in this rural area.  

Tea for two
Accommodation

We discovered Villa Boa Lao and it was my favourite place! It is in the heart of the village, has stunning views and has all the comforts one hopes for including a private raised wooden terrace with the use of an outside kitchen below, and is run by a French-Lao couple, Philippe and Boa. He is a chatterbox and a font of information. They also run the ‘Lotus restaurant’ where Boa graciously offers Lao cuisine as well as some simple French fusion dishes. They speak mainly French, with a smattering of

Lotus restaurant

English.  We ate our breakfast there and discussed our plans with Philippe before heading off for the day.

Nearby is a laundry service and motorbike and bike rental.

 

Vientiane

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is in some ways a featureless sprawl, but it’s seeing some development at the moment, with international hotel chains finally setting up shop here. There’s not a lot to see, but the city is worth a brief stopover. The National Museum was not shown on our city map (it’s on Samsenthai, opposite the Lao National Cultural Hall), but is worth finding. The archeological displays show that there’s a huge amount still to be discovered here, mostly offshoots of the Khmer Empire in present-day Cambodia. The last section consists of huge numbers of grainy black and white photos of guerrilla leaders (and the English captions take a turn for the worse, with bizarre transliterations of names such as Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat). The city’s temples are a mixed bunch – Wat Sisaket (daily 8am-5pm, 10,000 kip), the only temple in the city not destroyed by Thai invaders in 1828, is a lovely serene haven, with

Wat Si Muang

excellent murals (painted for King Anouvong in 1819-24) on the life of the future Buddha now being restored. Wat Ho Phra Ko (daily 8am-5pm, 10,000 kip) seems grander but the sanctuary actually has a bare barn-like interior with old pot shards and Buddhas in museum cases. Wat Si Muang (daily 6am-7pm, free) is hilariously gaudy, not to say kitsch, but the remains of an ancient Khmer stupa can be seen at the rear of the sanctuary.

A horrid custom which is still prevalent in Laos is the selling of small birds outside the temples. The idea is that people earn ‘merit’ from the gods when they release them into the wild. (Presumably only to be threatened with being recaught in due course). We saw the distressing sight of dozens all squashed together in cages in the searing heat outside many temples. 

A great restaurant in Vientiane

Various NGOs in Laos and Cambodia, helping landmine victims and street children, for instance, have opened restaurants both to raise money and to train people to work in restaurants. This website gives details. Opened in 2006, Makphet (meaning chili in Lao) is firmly established as one of the best places in Vientiane for creative but authentically Lao cuisine. The setting, indoors and outside in the lovely gardens, is beautiful, and there’s also a small gift shop, selling craft items made by families to help keep their children in education. However in March 2017 it was announced that Makphet had to close temporarily due to the expiry of its lease.

We didn’t know about this when we were in Luang Prabang, but the same NGO has recently opened a restaurant there called Khaiphaen (named after a popular snack of crispy Mekong river-weed), at 100 Sisavang Vatana Road, Ban Wat Nong, between the French Institute and the Mekong; it’s open Monday to Saturday 11am-10:30pm.

Luang Prabang

While Vientiane is now the capital of Laos, it’s the lovely old capital of Luang Prabang, about 8 hours north by road, that is its main touristic centre. As in the rest of the country, the tourist industry is growing fast, but the centre of town, with the royal palace and several famous wats (temples), and many less famous ones, has been designated as a World Heritage Zone by UNESCO, and so development has been restrained and fairly tasteful, with boutique hotels opening in restored French colonial buildings, and no multi-storey blocks.

There is much talk of not allowing Luang Prabang to go the way of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, which is now a busy noisy city of 400,000, with nearly a million in its metropolitan area, and so far the signs are good. The powers that be in Luang Prabang seem to have made an effort to provide proper pavements/sidewalks and to keep the place looking good – but garbage collection needs sorting out next.

The most exciting new development is the opening in November 2016 of the Pha Tad Ke Botanic Garden, the first in Laos. This was a royal retreat, where they went to unravel(!) and to hunt bear, boar and deer; there’s little trace of that now, but it’s been beautifully laid out in seven main areas, of which the centrepiece is the Ethno-botanic Garden, with fenced plots displaying just some of the thousand species used in Laos used for medicine, poisons, clothing and religious purposes. The Hmong people, in the north, grow Cannabis sativa (hemp) for their clothing, but this is not on display here… There’s good information in English and Lao in this section, but the rest of the gardens just have binomial tags on the trees. Other areas include the Arboretum, Ginger Garden, Palm Garden, Bamboo Garden and an orchid nursery, where they are cultivating 268 of the 483 species of orchid currently known in Laos (of about 1,400 in the whole of Indochina). There’s also a wilder area of limestone habitat (including tree ferns) on the mountainside, with a half-hour hike to the Buddha cave of Pha Tad Ke. The gardens were planted eight years ago, and are still a work in progress; as soon as funding is available they’ll build the Mist House, a damper environment for orchids, ferns and carnivorous plants. It’s already lovely to walk around, and the shop and café will top off your visit in style.

A visit costs US$25, including a 15-minute boat ride from their reception office on the Luang Prabang waterfront (and back) which is an enjoyable part of the outing (road access can be arranged for the disabled).

 Some practicalities

We flew into Luang Prabang separately, Katy from Chiang Mai and Tim from Hanoi. We both flew with Lao Airlines, and they’re clearly not a lao-cost (geddit?) operation – you get a snack, free changes of date, and free baggage check-in (their ATR-72 prop planes are great but have minimal locker space overhead). The airport is small and efficient and the visa on arrival process is fast – in addition to the quoted cost (eg US$35 for British passport-holders, US$42 for Canadians) you’ll pay a US$1 fee, plus US$1 if you didn’t bring a passport photo and they have to scan your passport photo (never mind the fact that they take a digital photo anyway plus fingerprints at the next stage of the immigration process). If you don’t have the dollars they’ll let you go through to the arrivals hall to an ATM or exchange counter and come back the wrong way through customs to pay, and retrieve your passport. Actually they’re more interested in selling you a SIM at the airport than in changing money or renting cars. It’s a half-hour walk from the airport to the town, or you can share a songthaew pick-up truck (50,000 kip for the first few passengers, then with luck proportionately less).

You should also be sure to get out on the Mekong at some point – foreigners pay 5,000 kip (50p) to take the car ferry from Luang Prabang to the west bank, where you can walk north to some nice temples – the first is free and in the heart of its village, the second is up a steep flight of steps and has little to offer apart from a great view across the river to Luang Prabang, but the third, Wat Longkhoun, has some charming 18th-century murals. From here you can continue and then loop inland to return to the ferry. Otherwise there are lots of boat tours to caves and waterfalls, and we also took a delightful two-hour trip in a long-tail boat from Champasak to Pakse in the south of Laos.

While Tim is of the ilk that enjoys power-walking around the sights, I on the other hand need a rest from time to time and also a smattering of comfort! There are two locations in town that provide a cheap and entertaining way to cover both these bases. The Sanctuary Hotel and the Victoria Xiengthong Palace Hotel at 6:30pm & 7:00pm, respectively and daily, screen a charming film about a Lao family living in the jungle. It’s called CHANG and is billed as one of the first documentaries in the history of cinema, and certainly the first film to document life in the Southeast Asian jungle. Shot in 1925, the film makers went on to make King Kong!  
Entry is free and one sits in a delightful garden with the only requirement of ordering a drink. It came with crisps too! Elephants are few and far between these days, but Chang shows how it used to be and how we have destroyed the abundance of wildlife. Salutary.