4000 Islands, Laos

Si Phan Don (which translates to “The 4000 Islands”) is a riverine archipelago in the south of Laos bordering with neighboring Cambodia. The islands are divided by the mighty Mekong river which is so vast it feels like you are surrounded by sea. Palm trees, wooden bungalows on stilts and the occasional sandbank beach line the island’s perimeter; it certainly has a tropical island feel. At 35 degrees, it is also much hotter here than in Northern Laos where we had been putting on extra layers for the evenings.

There are two main islands visited by tourists Don Det and Don Khon. We stayed on Don Khon which is larger and quieter than the more frequently visited Don Det. Both islands have a very relaxed vibe and you could easily spend days chilling in a hammock and admiring the views. The islands are connected by an old railway bridge which was used to transport goods and passengers over the waterfalls and across the Mekong. We explored both islands by bike, stopping off at the impressive Li Phi waterfall on the way.

On Christmas Day we took a boat out on the Mekong to see the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins. The Irrawaddy dolphins proved to be pretty elusive, but we did manage to catch a glimpse of a few dolphins in the distance.

Next stop: Hanoi, Vietnam

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Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng is the heart of the backpacker party scene in Laos and has certainly had a troubled past, but it was the surrounding scenery and adventure sports that attracted us to the area. The town itself is an eye sore; it’s overdeveloped and has many incomplete buildings which stand empty. The local pizzeria displays an ‘alternative’ dessert menu which included ‘magic garlic bread’ and ‘1g of Opium’ and many backpackers party the night away and spend their days watching episodes of Friends and Family Guy that play on repeat in the restaurants. Instead, we rode a bike out of town and were soon rewarded with beautiful countryside.

The main activity in Vang Vieng is Tubing which involves floating down the river in an inner tube and stopping off at several riverside bars along the way. Many tourists have died over the years and as a result the rope swings, slides and zip lines have been dismantled and unlicensed bars have been forced to close. Tubing is a lot more subdued (and hopefully safer) than it used to be, but it was still good fun floating down the river for 2 hours.

Vang Vieng is one of the cheapest places in the world to go on a hot air balloon ride. This was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss, so we decided to treat ourselves to an early Christmas present. You can either fly at sunrise or sunset, we decided to book onto the sunset flight at 4:30pm. On arrival at the launch site we watched as our balloon was filled with air and started to take shape. The balloon was lifted into position and we climbed into the basket and waited with excitement and anticipation. After a few loud blasts of fire (which made us all jump) we slowly rose up and away from the Earth.

The views were spectacular and it was such an unusual sensation to be floating over the town and looking out above the mountains. We gradually climbed up to 600m and were surrounded by breathtaking views; even the town looked pretty from this height. The sun was setting as we slowly floated back down towards the ground skimming over treetops and watching as children from a nearby village chased after the balloon and waved to us. The 45 minute flight flew by and it wasn’t long before we were coming into land. There was a group of men ready to assist on landing and we soon noticed we were heading directly for their van. We were shouting to them and after a quick sprint to the van, getting his foot on the pedal and pulling off with the door flung wide open, he managed to move the van just in the nick of time. Nothing like adding a bit of excitement to an otherwise smooth landing.

On our last night in Vang Vieng (and our last night with Sam before he flew back to England) we went out on the town and ended up partying the night away with a lovely group of girls from Bangkok.

Next stop: 4000 Islands, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is the old capital of Laos and its architecture serves as a reminder of the French colonial period. Luang Prabang is the most popular tourist destination in Laos and is upmarket and rather opulent compared to all of the other towns we’ve visited so far. It almost feels more like Europe than Laos, but it is a beautiful city nonetheless.

The Royal Temple, Wat Ho Pha Bang, is probably my favourite of the temples we’ve seen so far in South East Asia. The intricate gold detail which surrounds the entrance is impressive, but I think it’s the tiered roof which catches my eye the most. In the evening we took a Hatha/Vinyasa sunset yoga class at Utopia which looks out over the Mekong. It was a lovely setting and we came away feeling very refreshed.

The following day we visited Kuang Si Waterfall which is about an hour outside of the city by tuk tuk. The largest fall is around 60m high and is incredibly beautiful. There are also numerous turquoise pools which are surrounded by tiers of cascading falls and are great for swimming/jumping in. The water gets its turquoise colour from calcium carbonate particles which are found in the limestone rocks.

We also visited Kuang Si Butterfly Park and saw the various stages of the butterfly metamorphosis. There were some really large and vibrant butterflies, most of them were camera shy though!

One evening I went down to the river bank and watched the sunset over the Mekong. Beside me, a group of young monks were chatting and enjoying the peaceful setting before they took a long tail boat and headed off into the sunset.

UXO and Laos History

There is a UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang which unfortunately was closed when we visited on a Saturday. However we could still see some facts which highlighted the devastation the Second Indochina war caused. America dropped more then 2 million tonnes of ordinance on Laos between 1964 and 1973. More bombs were dropped on Laos during this period than there were dropped on the whole of Europe during the Second World War. It is equivalent to one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Did I mention that Laos wasn’t even part of the war?

Up to one third of the bombs did not detonate which has left the country littered with unexploded ordnance. More then 20,000 people have been killed or injured (often losing limbs) since the bombing ceased and at the current clean up rate it will be over 100 years before all unexploded ordinance have been removed.

Next stop: Vang Vieng, Laos

3 Day Kayak – Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang can be reached in around 4 hours by minivan from Nong Khiaw. Instead we decided to take a much slower, but more scenic route, 3 days by kayak. We were joined by another English couple, Hannah and Ross who were great fun. Having only kayaked for 1 day before we knew this would be tough, but we were ready for the challenge. Until the rain started that is!

Just as we set off on the first morning the heavens opened and we endured 3 hours of torrential rain. The visibility was very poor and we were soaked, we had no choice but to keep on rowing and hope the weather would improve. Luckily the sun came out around lunch time and dried us out for a much more enjoyable afternoon. Now we could fully appreciate the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. We stopped by at a fisherman’s house to get our dinner, a fish, which was tied to the kayak and pulled along for the rest of the journey.

The new dam, built by China, has ground this section of the Nam Ou river to a halt. It was more like kayaking on a lake than a river, but it certainly made for a good upper body workout. After 6 hours kayaking our arms were starting to ache and we were very glad to arrive at our homestay in a traditional Khmu village. Thong, our guide, prepared our dinner of sticky rice, fish marinated in its own blood, rat and crickets. He also told us about his life in Laos, how the healthcare is almost non existent unless you have the money. His family tried to sell their home and belongings to get emergency medical treatment for his father, but they still couldn’t afford it. It certainly makes us appreciate the healthcare service we have back in England.

The village was holding a funeral ceremony that day which seemed more of a celebration than a sad occasion. The funerals are always held at the end of the year, regardless of when the person died. We were invited to join them for the occasion, the music was blasting out of the speakers while we drank and danced the night away with the villagers. The villagers were very welcoming and hospitable, continually offering us free Lao-Lao (Laos whisky) shots and sunflower seeds for nibbles. They even put on some western music for us. It was a great way of celebrating Sam’s birthday and he spent most of the night dancing with little old ladies, who were enjoying the ‘party’ just as much as we were. This is one of the best nights we’ve had on our trip, who knew funerals could be so fun.

After a very restless nights sleep (the music from the funeral party was blaring until dawn) we were driven for an hour down river past the Chinese dam. The dam was a monstrosity and has had a devastating impact. Villages and their farmlands have been flooded, forcing hundreds of families to move into more modern ‘flat pack Ikea’ looking villages. The dam also affects fish migration and is depleting the fish which are heavily relied on by the villagers for both food and income. Despite the devastation, Laos gets a mere 10% of the energy generated from the dam.

The second day of kayaking was much easier on the arms as the river was flowing faster. There were also some large rapids to contend with which made it more exciting and thankfully we managed to keep our kayak upright this time! We arrived in our second village homestay ready for a good nights sleep and were very grateful for a peaceful evening without the pumping party music.

The final day we kayaked down the last stretch of the Nam Ou river with huge limestone karsts towering over us. We then joined the Mekong and had a quick stop at Pak Ou caves which are filled with hundreds of tiny Buddha statues. We kayaked for another hour before reaching our destination, after a fantastic 3 days we were quite sad it was all over. Our arms were certainly ready for a good rest though.

Next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos

Nong Khiaw & Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos

Nong Khiaw is a small town which sits on the Nam Ou river. The journey from Luang Namtha was a long and windy 8 hour mini bus ride. Along the way we saw several small villages perched on the road’s edge, the women and children carry bamboo baskets (which hang from their heads) and are usually filled with firewood or vegetables.

In Nong Khiaw we met up with James’ friend, Sam, who has come to join us for 3 weeks in Laos. After 4 months on the road, it was nice to see a friendly face and for the boys to have a good catch up. Unfortunately Sam brought the English weather with him; we had torrential rain all day and night. We decided to move to Muang Ngoi Neua the following day hoping the rain wouldn’t follow.

Muang Ngoi Neua is a small village about an hour up river, by slow boat, from Nong Khiaw. Limestone karsts covered with trees tower up either side of the river, reminiscent of scenes from Apocalypse Now. Children play on the river banks while their fathers are out on the boats checking their fishing nets.

The ‘main street’ in Muang Ngoi Neua is more of a mud path with a number of guesthouses and restaurants either side. There are no street lights and almost no motorised vehicles apart from the occasional scooter. The children play boules with rubber bands instead of balls and you can often see cockerels fighting in the street, tied together by a piece of string around their ankles.

Whilst in Muang Ngoi Neua we hiked up to a viewpoint, visited a couple of caves and walked to a nearby village. The evenings are much cooler here and most nights were spent chatting around a fire at Bee Bar.

Next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Namtha, Laos

Luang Namtha is a small town in the north east of Laos and is a great place for trekking and rafting. We arrived in Luang Namtha after a 7 hour direct bus from Chiang Rai, with a quick stop at the border to sort our visas. The differences between Thailand and Laos soon became apparent after crossing the border. Laos is much more rugged, and is significantly less developed both in terms of its housing and roads.

Luang Namtha and the surrounding villages are ideal for exploring by scooter or bicycle. We visited the That Phoum Pouk temple which was bombed during the Vietnam war, a new temple has now been built next to the ruins. We also visited That Luang Namtha temple as it has a path behind it, through a rubber plantation, up to a viewpoint which looked out over the town and rolling hills. In the afternoon we drove to the waterfall in Ban Nam Dee village and had it all to ourselves.

The following day we started a 2 day 1 night adventure in the Nam Ha National Protected Area. The first day we trekked through the jungle and spent the night in a Khmu ethnic village, staying with one of the families. The village was beautiful and very traditional; lots of animals running around, children playing and even helping with the daily chores such as collecting food and water from the pump. Life is simple here but the people seem very happy. That night we watched as our dinner, a duck, was bled, plucked and gutted. Not something we often see in the western world. We really enjoyed our stay in the village and would have happily stayed here a lot longer.

The next day we kayaked for 5 hours down the Nam Ha river with primary rainforest on either side of the river banks. The rapids were really fun and we were doing quite well avoiding the rocks until right near the end when we flipped our kayak! We both lost our sunglasses, but at least we had fun doing it.

Next stop: Nong Khiaw, Laos