Laos has been a very special destination. In a Laos travel blog I read about the moments of calm, the beers near and far from the Mekong, the suffocating heat, the smells, the curiosity of the children, and the charm of the people. We decided the destination without having images of Laos in our memory.
When we still had 10 months to fly there, we were already convinced of the beauty of the temples and the landscapes. What we did not know was how deep we would find a beauty greater than that of temples and landscapes: the beauty of its people.
I read a few years ago that Luang Prabang is the most beautiful city in the world. That's why, while we were returning from Malaysia, we thought it was the most natural thing in the world to start making plans to visit the most beautiful city in the world and, by the way, the country that surrounds it.
DAY 1 - PAKSE
After a few days in the order and neatness of Singapore, the Changi airport and a stopover at the Bangkok airport, getting to Pakse is not a culture shock. We arrived in Pakse at about 4 o'clock, in a flight with about 15 people on the plane, of which only 2 were Western tourists. I do not know if all arrivals by air are like that, but ours was anthological.
We came from Bangkok airport! The Pakse airport is a tiny building in need of painting. To manage the visa, four soldiers lined up observing and passing from one to the other our passports, as if they were the first ones they had in their hands. In the end, after all the stamps, they released us in a deserted airport. No shops, no bars and,no taxi. Neither other passengers, nor anyone. They were closing the airport.
Luckily we got a taxi out of nowhere with which, of course, we did not even think of haggling. We arrived at the hotel, dropped our bags, shower, change clothes and go to the street. We wanted to locate the cafe, where the next day we would be picked up to start our cruise on the Mekong.
Soon we found a tuk-tuk, took us to the cafe and there we tried the first Laotian coffee. The coffee is good. We walk aimlessly, watching, observing everything! Pakse is a ramshackle city that, like almost all in Southeast Asia, had its grace. I guess it's that kind of chaos and controlled disorder, which makes these sites attractive to me.
After calling home we sit down to have dinner in a small restaurant. That was the first of many delicious dinners (the Laotian food has enchanted us) and it was also accompanied by the first of many cold and wonderful Beer Laos.
DAY 2 - PAKSE
We meet the manager of the ship. On the boat we would meet only eight passengers. A luxury, since the boat is designed for almost thirty. The first thing we did when we got to Vat Phou was to take off our shoes. The cabins were small, but nice and with everything necessary, including a shower.
The air conditioning only works from 6 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning, but it was enough. During the day we are on deck, watching the Mekong pass or hiking. The food on the boat is exquisite. There I tried sticky rice and laab for the first time, my favorite Laotian dishes. In the afternoons they used to receive us with a fruit smoothie and, before dinner or during dinner, the usual cold beer Lao.
At noon, meals were made on the deck. The ship sails only by day. The first afternoon we visit the ruins of Champasak. They are the same Angkor style, although, of course, not so great. If you saw Angkor, Champasak is not worth it. They are not so spectacular, but the scenery is beautiful and the remains interesting.
Back to the ship, we went further and stopped near a couple of villages in the area and visited the remains of the Oum Muong temple. The truth is that little is preserved, but its enclave, in the middle of the jungle, makes it very mysterious. After we disembarked the luggage and, first in a small boat and then in a van, we went to the 4000 islands and the Phapheng falls.
The area of the 4000 islands is becoming fashionable and it does not surprise me. It is full of guesthouses, cabanas with balconies hanging over the Mekong. The area is very quiet. Tourists walk on foot, by boat, by bicycle.
At this point, of course, we had already let ourselves be carried away by the rhythm of the country. They say that in Asia, the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians cultivate it and the Laotians sit down to hear it grow. Well there we were, hearing the rice growing and in love with the whole country.
They took us to see the tracks of the old French railway. We ate at a restaurant on the banks of the Mekong. But the highlight was the falls. It is amazing and terrible to see how local fishermen risk their lives on the walks they have built to gather their nets. The strength of the water (and the noise) is incredible. I did not get to go down. I stayed halfway and then I saw them also from the viewpoint. Back in Pakse, they stopped us at a market. They sold absolutely everything.
DAY 3 - VIENTIANE
At 9.30 we arrived at the small airport in the capital of Laos. We collect our bags, and change money. We took a fixed price taxi, to go to the guest house, with good reviews on the Lonely Planet. We see a couple of rooms and although they do not convince us, we are so tired that we stay in one of them.
Immediately, we go around the city, have some beer and eat our first Laotian specialties. We have larb, a kind of very spicy salad with meat and a kind of spring roll, and we decided to return to sleep for a while. After three hours of rest, we are much more fresh, and it is night when we leave the room again.
We take a long walk around the Mekong, where there are dozens of bars with huge barbecues. Cooks prepare river fish (many of them still alive), seafood and various types of meat, and where tourists and locals dine. We look in a couple of agencies how to get to Luang Prabang, our next destination.
Soon our doubts dissipate, since it takes 10 hours by bus, and 40 minutes by flight. Around 8 o'clock in the evening we dined in one of those bars near the river, a huge fish and a plate of noodles. To this we add a huge Lao beer, and a fruit plate (watermelon, mango and melon). It is great, and our first impression of Laos is more than positive.
After dinner, we walk around a small market nearby, and finish the day with some fruit smoothies at a place with a nice garden, located on a street perpendicular to the Mekong.
DAY 4 - LUANG PRABANG
Although we planned to spend two nights in the capital in our travel itinerary, we decided to go ahead in Luang Prabang on a flight that leaves at 4.30 in the afternoon. At 6 o'clock in the morning we are already awake and after paying for the room, we set out to visit a cozy city, which is awakening. It's a little chilly, so we even need to put on a sweater.
The walk is very nice. The traffic is surprisingly less (it seems incredible that we are in an Asian capital). We walk through large tree-lined avenues, with buildings of communist aesthetics mixed with some colonial houses and many Buddhist temples many of which we visited. Walking through the pompously called Champs Elysees, we arrived at a horrendous triumphal arch, built with the American cement planned to make an airport.
Around 10 o'clock, we stop for breakfast and have some fruit shakes, and later buy tickets at the airlines office. We continue our tour, and it starts to get hot so a couple of hours later we have a few beers in the shade of a huge tree. Then we eat at the one which has some very interesting Asian-Western fusion dishes in its menu. It is almost empty (in general it shows that there are not too many tourists in the city), and we had a great dessert plus a beer.
At 2 in the afternoon we go to the guest house to collect the suitcases, and we negotiate a tuk-tuk to take us to the airport. Here there is very few people and little air traffic (I entertained counting the daily flights, and counted about 10. At the scheduled time, we take a small propeller plane, in which fifteen people would travel.
In 45 minutes it takes us to Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Lang Xang, a beautiful World Heritage city. It is surrounded by mountains and temples, located between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and is the spiritual and tourist center of the country.
The collection of the suitcases is very fast, and we take a prepaid taxi, not without difficulty, since the taxi driver does not know the address we give him. He takes us to the guest house. The room is great, like a three-four star hotel.
After showering we went for a walk around the nearby and huge Night Market. The products on sale disappoint us a little because, with some exceptions, they all seem to be made in China. In spite of this, we make some purchases, after the noble art of bargaining. We dine by the river in one of the many restaurants and, as a novelty, we tried the freshwater algae which we we seasoned with a spicy sauce.
They are quite tasty, although their appearance is not too attractive. It is early, but there is no one in the restaurant, so we enjoy absolute tranquility. Although the Mekong is not illuminated, we sense its powerful presence in the darkness. At the end we take a long walk to our accommodation, and at 10, we go to sleep.
DAY 5 - LUANG PRABANG
As usual, at 6 o'clock in the morning we are awake, although this time we attribute it more to the noise of motorbikes and roosters than to jet-lag. We take a shower and prepare the backpack, to go out to breakfast to the terrace where it is quite cold. I think it was about 12-13 degrees, and we wrap ourselves with what little we have. The breakfast is superb with coffee, eggs, homemade fruit jams (tamarind, mango, papaya) and delicious bread.
At about 8.30 we went to discover the city. We visited the Royal Palace, an interesting building with objects from the daily life of the Laotian monarchs, before they were expelled. We move to the Palace. After a couple of hours in the building, we began to visit the Buddhist enclosures, called Wats, which are composed of a more or less interesting temple.
Around it are lodgings, dining rooms, schools, toilet areas, in which are swarm of monks with yellow robes. The entrance to each of them is free (except in some cases). We can wander through them with total freedom, and we conveniently ask the monks if they can be photographed in their daily tasks.
By one of these temples, I try to speak in English with a young monk, of the few that dominate this language. After visiting about ten Wats, although it is early, we decided to take a break looking for a pub-restaurant. It's a bit difficult to find, but we quickly realize that the effort was worth it. The place is spectacular, with a lush garden, oriental sculptures on all sides.
At one end, a terrace with bamboo floor, full of hammocks, cushions and low tables hang over the Nam Khan River. The view is wonderful together with the tranquility of the place (there are only 4 tourists). With the soft chill out music, it makes us spend several hours there, drinking beer, eating rolls and noodles with prawns and a couple of cocktails.
Before leaving, in a small volleyball court, I play with a couple of Englishmen to touch a small irregular ball. After negotiating a bit, we got a bike. After signing the contract, and some tests, we put on our helmets, and we begin our journey. Our destination is the Kuang Si Falls, about 35 km away.
Once we leave the city, we find roads in good condition, where there is hardly any traffic. We cross small villages, where we make some stops to visit Wats, but also to feel the life of its inhabitants, who, oblivious to our status as tourists, perform their daily tasks. The children take advantage of to play football.
The feeling of freedom is absolute, and the result is that we enjoy the tour enormously. In an hour and a half we are at the entrance to the falls. After parking the motorcycle, we secure it with a padlock (although later we will verify that it is unnecessary, because the theft is something exceptional).
We begin the climb path following the course of the river, whose water presents an extraordinary turquoise color. The tourists that surround us can be counted on the fingers of the hand. We managed to climb to the top of the waterfall, not without some slip, through a thick jungle.
When going down, although the weather is not too hot, I cannot resist taking a dip. After the impressive bath, and visit to an enclosure where a few brown bears sit, we leave the falls and eat at a nearby restaurant. We later start the return, making multiple stops to take pictures. In one of them, I try to play with some children.
When arriving to Luang, it must be rush hour because the traffic is chaotic, although, they drive quite slowly. I quickly adapt to the disorder. Before returning the bike, we have time to visit some more temples. After seeing a beautiful sunset on a terrace on the Mekong, we go to the guest house, to pack our bags and pay the bill.
After returning to our guesthouse, take a shower, before returning to the Night Market. We realize that the sellers are less aggressive than the Vietnamese, and do not get angry. In the market we dine in an open-air enclosure, with a great variety of delicacies. We head for dinner at a nice restaurant with garden, whose specialty is the varied barbecues (meat, fish or vegetarian) at a great price.