This is the capital and also the largest city of Laos. It is located on the bank of the River Mekong. We started our trip by visiting the oldest Buddhist temple or Wat of the city- Wat Si Saket. The style of the Buddhist architecture is intertwined with the history of the capital. There are thousands of images of Lord Buddha in ceramic, gold and silver. The many carvings and rustic delicate statues of Buddha show the authenticity of this traditional temple. We spent hours cycling around the villages and local markets. There are many places that you can rent bicycles from. Trailing through the countryside we came across some of the most engagingly untouched neighborhoods.
If I would have to pick one city in Laos that was my favorite than it would be Luang Prabang. Without a doubt. Downside: it’s fairly touristic, which is what happens if a city is pretty and has all sort of fun things to do. I thought I would list a few things to do when in Luang Prabang 1.Breakfast at Joma cafe; French style bakery with good coffee. There are more locations around town and they have them in Phnom Penh as well. 2.Rent a bike; there are plenty of bike rental shops around town, so pick a good one with bikes that look decent. The town is perfect for a leisurely bike ride and the little breeze will be most welcome I can assure you! 3.Morning Market :The morning market in Luang Prabang is fantastic or at least I think so, but then I am a market junkie. I don’t like touristic markets with all kinds of junk but if you do then you should definitely visit the night market as that is mostly touristy stuff but fun to walk through as well. For a more authentic experience go to the morning market and browse around the endless lines of stalls and try and guess some of the ingredients… (we saw fried rats! Yuck!)
Pakse is supposedly the fourth largest city of Laos. That’s not saying much considering Vientiane is so sleepy that you barely remember it’s a capital city. It is located 670km away from Vientiane and is nestled along the Sedon River and the mighty Mekong. The town itself is quite cute, with wide roads, open spaces, and actual footpaths you can use, though most are very dusty and muddy and being Laos, there are a few holes in the ground and rogue metal railings poking out so watch your step. Pakse is the logical gateway to the South of Laos, and is primarily used as a base to see the surrounding Bolaven plateau, the Khmer temples, and most famous of all, the 4,000 islands (Si Phan Don).
We headed towards Vang Vieng, a well-known party place with tubing, kayaking and caving. Draw dropping peaks of limestone formations are the norm, this place is definitely a jewel. What a great place to spend your time and enjoy the new toy. We found an amazing room, with a kick ass 3D view of the Nam Song River overlooking karst formations. We rented 2 semi-automatic motorbikes and explored the Vang Vieng’s landscape. We visited caves, waterfalls and the blue lagoon. The rain was on and off making the ride wet, muddy and interesting.
Thakhek is a rather quiet town located along the mighty Mekong river. This province was founded under the French so as you venture around the tiny streets you will find them lined with French villas. The name Thakhek, which means “Visitor’s Landing”, is relatively new, but is a reference to the town’s importance as far back as the eighth century. The best thing to do in Thakhek is to visit the Mahaxai Caves. These limestone karst formations are a great place to spend a day. There are many caves here, but the most visited one is the Tham En. There is also a small lake inside that glows emerald-green highlighting the limestone formations. Another attraction here is the Wat Pha That Sikhotabong. One of the holiest pilgrimage spots (and tourist spots), it is seen best at sunset.
When we arrive in Nong Kiaow, we realise that to see a place so beautiful, sometimes you have to suffer to be deserving of the view. Nong Kiaow is separated in two. One area for locals, the other seemingly built of guesthouses. We make our way across the bridge on foot to our designated Falang bungalow, and begin to drink in slowly, the view with a beer Lao on Laos time.
At 3.30am my alarm rings in to the deep dark, reminding us to dress warmly for the early morning trek through mountain roads bordering China. In convoy we set off out of Luang Nam Tha for the two hour journey to Muang Sing. The promise there is of hidden cultures, away from any Westernisation, where there are no routes for eighteen year olds searching for a drink in a car tire. Up and up through darkness that relaxes in to mountain mist and morning dew we climb. Eventually we find our way to the market, a melting pot of Hmong, Akha and Black Thai women selling vegetables, home made clothing and eels that try to escape their plastic bowls. The freshest of fresh produce here. While visiting a beautiful waterfall, just outside of Muang Sing in the golden triangle, I am met with a scene from Stig of the Dump. As we walk to the falls a narrow trail stretches in front of us, leading us up the side of the river. Suddenly the sound of a log crashing through the trees falling behind us breaks our chatter and I look up to see forest debris tumbling after an unknown entity causing this wake of destruction. We look in unison at the river a few feet below. An enormous dark green python slithers off the rocks and in to the river. At the waterfall we are greeted by a small, and dry-season-depleted, green rocky resting point. Water splashes down in to a shallow pool creating a miniature cooling breath and the accompanying view of the golden triangle and it's mountains hold our imaginations. Until I look back to the waterfall and logs for a seat. White plastic food dishes, wrappers, torn chocolate cases and plastic bags litter and mar the scene. My heart sinks and I lose my patience at the rattan sack serving as a bin sits impotently next to the debris. These places will not last if they are not looked after and by the locals too. It doesn't take infrastructure to put rubbish in a bin. Taking matters in to my own hands I set about clearing the rubbish heap while my fellow travellers look on.
The one thing I remember clearly when talking about Pak Beng is the warning in the Lonely PLanet that Pak Beng is mostly famous for the fact that bags get stolen out of the hotelrooms…. Stuff like that always makes me nervous. Carrying a lot of camera gear around is not always good for your sanity and/or your back.. ;) If you take the slow boat from Chiang Khong (Thailand) to Luang Prabang you’re most likely to have a stop over in Pak Beng. It’s an uneventful little town, with a few guesthouses and a few restaurants and that’s about it. Good enough for one night but not something you want to stay any longer!
The world's most chilled-out riverside town, and one of my favorite places in the world. Walk in the surrounding rice paddies and forests, and take a day to inner-tube down the river.