Crossing the Border – Don Det, Laos to Kratie, Cambodia

We only had one more day left on our Laos visas, so it was time to move on…to Cambodia!

We booked a package ticket from Don Det to Kratie, which included the boat ride from Don Det to Ban Nakasang, the bus to the Cambodian border, and then another bus to Kratie, a tiny town in Northeastern Cambodia.

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The route

We woke up and walked to the beach where the boat was to pick us up at approximately 8am.  It showed up around 8:30 and took us across the river to the bus station.

Once at the bus station, this schmancy looking guy, naming himself our ‘guide,’ gave us the required border crossing documents to fill out.  He then asked us to give him our passports, the documents, and $40 to get all of our visas for us.  Cambodia visas only cost $35, but then there’s the stamping fee scam of $1 by both sides, and the bribe to get through without a passport photo (which neither of us had.)  Even if we had refused the guy and tried to go through on our own, it probably would have worked out to be about the same price or only a dollar or two less, so we decided the convenience was worth it.

The process of everyone filling out the documents and giving them to the guy took forever, and then we sat around waiting for a long time.  No one ever seems to tell you what you’re waiting for, but you have no choice, so you just wait.

Finally, we were instructed to board the bus that would take us to the border crossing.  Despite being very close to the border already, the condition of the road wasn’t great so it still took about an hour to get there.

Once we got to the border, we got off the bus and sat around waiting for our ‘guide’ to get out visas for us, which took at least another hour.  Eventually we were instructed to walk across the border (you can’t be driven) where we were stopped for this ridiculous “health check” scam.  Basically it was this plastic gun looking thing that they pointed about 3 inches from our necks, pressed a button, then it made a little beeping sound.  What this was allegedly ‘checking’ for, we had no idea, but it cost an additional $1 (included in the $40 we gave the ‘guide.’)

Once on the other side of the border, we waited to receive our visas and then had to wait for the handful of pioneers that decided to cross on their own, instead of paying the guide. When they finally made it over, they revealed that they had saved $3 by doing it on their own.

Finally, after more mysterious waiting, it was time for us to get on the last bus to our final destination.

As expected, the roads were horrendous and it took about 5 more hours to get to Kratie, making our journey a total of approximately 9 hours from Don Det.

We got off at the bus station, happy that we decided to stop in Kratie instead of going straight away to Pnom Penh, which is another 6 to 8 hours away-and where most everyone else on the bus was going.

We had no idea where to go once we got to Kratie, so we just started asking tuk tuk drivers to take us to a guesthouse.  Luckily, we found one who offered us a free ride to River Dolphin Hotel and promised us a $5 room.

We hopped on the tuk tuk and drove about 5 minutes out of town to the hotel, where we were greeted with glasses of orange juice and moist, minted towels (Jojo is convinced they were merely soaked in mouthwash, but whatever, it felt fancy.)  We were lead to our $5 room as promised, and were pleased to find that it was way nicer than any of the $10 rooms we had stayed in Laos!

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant before retiring back to our room, happy to have finally made it to Cambodia and ready to start our journey through the country!

Snacks: 30,000kip

Bus Package: 380,000kip

Lunch: $5 USD

2-Cambodia Visas: $84 USD

Dinner: $10.25 USD

Accommodation: $5 USD

Total Spent: $154.71 USD

Don Det – The 4,000 Islands

In the southern-most part of Laos, right on the border of Cambodia, in the middle of the Mekong, lies Don Det–one of the major islands of Si Phan Don, also known as the 4,000 Islands.

We arrived in Don Det after a pain staking journey from the North, ready to do what everyone comes to Don Det to do–nothing!

Well, not entirely nothing, but mostly.

We arrived by boat in the early afternoon where we promptly found a bungalow, equipped with a private bathroom and two hammocks in front.  We dropped off our bags and set off to walk the 7-8km path following the perimeter of the island to see what was going on.

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The main road of Don Det
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Jojo next to the river
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Some local livestock

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We explored the island for a couple of hours, passing by playing children, feral dogs, and local houses built on stilts.  We even passed a raging party of Laotians, in the middle of a dry rice field.  They were dancing to strange pop music and downing shots of lao lao, the local rice whisky.  At first we were anxious about interrupting their party, but then they started beckoning us to join them!  We declined because it was like 1pm, but it was really hilarious to see!

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Lao children carrying puppies down the road

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Once we got to the other side of the island, we stopped at a place called One Last Bar, where we ordered two amazing homemade ginger ales and enjoyed the riverside view.

Don Det is similar to Vang Vieng in that there are drug-filled edibles available everywhere (happy shakes, happy bags), lots of people with dreadlocks, and…not a ton of Lao culture.  That being said, it is wayyyyyyy less rowdy and much more laid back.  One could argue that Don Det is also a ‘party town’ but people are not nearly as loud or obnoxious about it.

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Not as subtle as in Vang Vieng

That evening, we had dinner at Jasmin Restaurant, (one of the best Indian restaurants ever) before retiring to our modest bungalow.  The mosquito net was essential too, because it was sweltering hot until about 3am (so we had to open the windows, to even be able to sleep.)

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The next morning we decided to move to a different bungalow.  There was nothing wrong with the one we had been in the first night, but we decided it would be worth the extra $2.50 to get one right on the river.

We found one on the other side of the island that better suited our needs, and decided the day would be best spent in the hammocks out front.  I do not exaggerate when I say that is all we did the entire day, with the exception of brief ventures out for food at mealtimes.  After our lengthy journey down the entirety of the country, it was well deserved and well appreciated!

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…and then we did the same exact thing the next day.  Don’t judge, you would have too.

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After two glorious days of doing nothing, we decided it was time to go out and explore again.  This time, we rented bicycles and rode across the bridge to the neighboring island of Don Khon.  

We rode along the bumpy dirt road of Don Det to the bridge that connects the two islands.  It was scenic, but also painful.

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The bumpy dirt road
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Crossing the bridge to Don Khon

Once we crossed the bridge, we headed straight for Tat Somphamit, also known as the Li Phi waterfalls.  Apparently ‘Li Phi’ means spirit trap and it is believed that the spirits of dead people and animals are trapped there.  Despite its morbid mythology, the raging waterfall was spectacular!

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The top of the Li Phi waterfalls

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We walked all the way down to the bottom of the falls to Li Phi Beach.  Although the water was much slower at the bottom, there were still signs warning people not to try to swim because of the currents.  It was still nice to walk along the beach, though.

We went back to our bikes and decided to continue on to Tha Sanam Beach a little further along, which was also really pleasant, though the sand was a thousand degrees and really painful to walk on.  We stopped for a coconut at one of the stands near the entrance before heading back.

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We rode back to Don Det in the blazing afternoon heat, just in time to catch sunset at a local restaurant.  The hazy clouds made it look like an orange ball just floating above the trees.

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We had done just about all there was to ‘do’ in the 4,000 Islands, but we wanted just one more day of lounging around in the hammocks.  After all, we still had a couple more days left on our Lao visas and we had no other destinations planned before heading to Cambodia.

So, we did!  And it was just as satisfying as the other days.  We also treated ourselves to a wood-fired pizza at a restaurant down the road which was excellent.

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…then Jojo got sick. 😦

We were worried it was food poisoning, but it ended up passing pretty quickly (and luckily, because had a long bus ride booked for the next morning.)

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We loved Don Det and wanted to stay forever.  We were really glad that our change of plans ended up taking us there, when we had not originally planned to go.

We were also sad to say goodbye to Laos, but excited to venture into Cambodia.  Laos was good to us, and we will surely visit again some day.

Our Grand Expedition from the North to South of Laos

To start this post, let us first explain how we ended up on the nonsensical route that we did.

Our original “plan” while traveling Southeast Asia was to start out in Vietnam, then go to Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.  We started out in Vientiane Laos then headed north, with the intention of taking the two-day slow boat from Luang Prabang over to Thailand.  We would travel south through Thailand and then on to Cambodia before going back to Thailand where we have a potential gig lined up.

When doing some research on visas and the logistics of all this, we considered that perhaps it would be wiser to go to Cambodia before going to Thailand so that we wouldn’t have to worry about multiple Thai visas (since we would be leaving and then coming back.)  The unfortunate part of this plan was that we hadn’t considered it until we were already in Northern Laos.  This new plan would require backtracking down to Vientiane, and then traveling even further down to Pakse and the 4,000 Islands before crossing into Cambodia.

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15.5 hours. Right.

Here is what actually happened:

We started out with an uneventful, four hour bus ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang.  Once we arrived at the Luang Prabang bus stop, we intended to book a sleeper bus for that night down to Vientiane–only it was full, so we couldn’t.

At that point our choices were to stay the night in Luang Prabang and take a bus in the morning that would take all day and put us in Vientiane the following night, or to take a sleeper bus the following night.  12 hours sitting on a bus all day sounded horrid so we opted to hang out in Luang Prabang and take the sleeper bus the following night.

While we enjoyed relaxing in Luang Prabang one last time, we probably should have just taken the day bus, because then we could have gotten an actual night’s rest at a guesthouse in Vientiane.  Instead, we spent 12 agonizing hours in a Laos sleeper bus (why didn’t we learn the first time?) crunched up on the ground while the bus violently bounced and swayed all the way to Vientiane.

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We arrived in Vientiane at about 7am with another set of choices.  Do we take another 12 hour day bus straight away and head down to Pakse or wait and do another night bus?  With the horrors of the sleeper bus we had just exited fresh in our minds, we couldn’t bear the idea of doing it again two nights in a row.  Instead, we hopped on a bus two hours later, and headed down to Pakse.

We were assured that the bus to Pakse would be 12 hours, putting us in the city around 10pm which should have been a decent enough time to find a room for the night.  Only, the bus stopped half a hundred times on the way to Pakse for god knows what reasons, extending the journey to about 15 hours.

Do you know how many guesthouses are open at 1am in Pakse?  None.  There are none.

There was only one other backpacker on the bus with us who was also stuck in this situation and the three of us set out to find some kind of accommodation for the night.  Exhausted from no sleep and almost 30 hours on buses, we wandered the deserted streets of Pakse knocking on guesthouse windows, in hopes of waking up the employees and inquiring about rooms.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the people we were able to startle awake all told us that they were full.

An hour later, we found ourselves sitting on a bench by the road, all but given up.  “There is one more on my map, I’m going to go check it,” said our new Spanish friend.  Sure that his efforts would fail, as they had for the last hour, we sat on the bench consumed with exhaustion, frustration, and helplessness.  

Just as we were adjusting ourselves in preparation to sleep on this bench, the Spanish guy reappeared, waving.

“Come on, guys!”

We sprang up and he waved for us to follow him to this one last guesthouse he had found!  It was a little pricier than we would have liked, but being 2am and after what we had been through, we were grateful for anything.

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We woke up the next morning and decided we simply did not have the energy to get to Don Det that day.

Instead, we spent the day exploring Pakse, which is perhaps the most boring city on the planet earth.  Despite being the third largest Laotian city in population, there was hardly anyone around.  Anywhere.  The whole day.

There also isn’t really much to see or do in Pakse and it was Valentine’s Day, so we decided to celebrate by eating lots of delicious food that we normally wouldn’t splurge on.  For lunch it was Dok Mai Lao Caffe, an Italian restaurant run by two older Italian men which was excellent.  For dinner, it was Le Panorama on top of the Pakse Hotel where we could look out over the entire city and watch the sun set.

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The next morning, it was finally time for us venture on to the last leg of the journey to the 4,000 Islands.

A mini-bus picked us up from our hotel at 8am and took us to the bus that would take us about 3 hours south of Pakse to Ban Nakasang, where we boarded a ferry that took us to the island of Don Det, our home base during our stay in the 4,000 Islands.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most logical route, but we finally made it to Don Det, and the hammocks awaiting us on the porch made our arrival that much sweeter!

Journey Breakdown:

Wednesday 2/11: Bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang (4-5 hrs)

Thursday 2/12: Sleeper Bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (12 hrs)

Friday 2/13: Day bus from Vientiane to Pakse (15 hrs)

Saturday 2/14: Valentine’s Day in Pakse

Sunday 2/15: Bus/Ferry from Pakse to Don Det (3-4 hours)

Success!

Back to Nong Khiaw – The Viewpoint

After two phenomenal days spent in Muang Ngoi, it was time for us to start heading south.  Our visa would be expiring in 11 days and and we had to get all the way down to Cambodia before that.

We took the boat back to Nong Khiaw in the morning and decided that we couldn’t resist staying one more day, so we walked across the bridge and booked a bungalow for the night.

After dropping off our things, we decided the day would be well spent hiking up the steep trail to the Nong Khiaw Mountain Viewpoint; for what promised to be a spectacular 360 degree view of Nong Khiaw and its surroundings.

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Warning of unexploded bombs at the beginning of the trail
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A creature we spotted on the hike
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Beginning the ascent

The next hour and a half was sweaty trekking up steep inclines and steps through dense jungle and bamboo forests.

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Hiking up the mountain to the viewpoint

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Every once in a while, there would be a clearing in the trees and we could get a peak of what awaited us at the top of the mountain.

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The view from about half way up the mountain

We pressed on and on until we finally made it to the very top, and it really did not disappoint!

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We finally made it to the top!

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The view from the top made the difficult journey seem like nothing and we were happy to spend half an hour up there, enjoying the scenery while we regained our strength.

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Catching our breath at the top

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In some ways, the way back down the mountain was even harder than the way up due to the risk of sliding.  On the particularly steep parts, there were ropes on the side of the trail that you could use to brace yourself, but sometimes the pebbles underneath our feet would start rolling while we were standing on them.  We lost our footing more than a couple of times, but we made it to the bottom unscathed.

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Ropes lining the trail to aid in the treacherous descent

Once we were back down in Nong Khiaw, we crossed the bridge just in time for sunset, before a delicious curry dinner at Alex Restaurant and the comforts of our bungalow.

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Sunset over the Nam Ou River

We were really happy to squeeze one more day in Nong Khiaw before making our journey down through Laos.  Thus far, the Northern villages had been our favorite part of the country, but we were also excited to get down South!

Breakfast: 28,000kip

Oreos: 10,000kip

Boat: 50,000kip

Lunch (Joy’s): 65,000kip

Viewpoint Entrance Fee: 40,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Water/Beer: 15,000kip

Alex Restaurant: 101,000kip

Sunrise Bungalow: 50,000kip

Total Spent: 364,000kip ($44.90 USD)

Muang Ngoi – The Northern Villages of Laos

Muang Ngoi Neua is a tiny riverside village even further north from Nong Khiaw.  To get there, we took a lovely one-hour boat ride up the Nam Ou River, passing water buffalo and fishing villagers surrounded by beautiful jungle and limestone karsts.

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Jojo on the boat from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi
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Some passing water buffalo
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Villagers fishing in the river

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Once off the boat, we found a private bungalow overlooking the river at Nicksa’s, equipped with a mosquito net, a private bathroom, and two hammocks in the front.  Once we dropped our packs off, we walked along the main dirt road of the tiny town, populated by about 700.

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The main road of Muang Ngoi

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We chanced upon a sign pointing to the Tham Kang Cave and decided to follow.  We followed the dirt road for a little less than an hour, stopping now and then to admire the surrounding scenery.

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On our way to Tham Kang Cave
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Silly sign at the entrance

The Tham Kang Cave was used as a bomb shelter during the Vietnam War era, protecting people from the nearby villages.  The cave went reasonably deep and we spent some time exploring the crystalline rock formations until we could go no further.

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Tham Kang Cave
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A small grotto inside
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The mouth of the cave
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Exploring the inside of the cave
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Hard to see in the picture, but those structures were glittering with crystals!

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As we turned to make our way back, we quickly realized that the way out was not as obvious as the way in.  It took us nearly twice as long to get out of the cave because we kept getting lost and stuck at dead ends.  At this point, a group of four other travelers joined in our quest to escape the cave and after some time and only a brief moment of anxiety, we finally found our way out!

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Terrifying creature we found while we were lost (about 3-4 inches long)
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We made it out!

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After bonding over getting lost in the cave, the six of us decided to continue onward to the nearby village of Huay Bo.  We walked and walked and walked through vast farms and dirt roads, all the while surrounded by the stunning feats of nature.

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Walking to Huay Bo Village

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A helpful sign… (cross river?)
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Yes, this is what the sign meant.

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The village of Huay Bo is teeny tiny, with a population of just over 200, and looks sort of like one big farm.  We explored the village, waving to people and watching the children play together.  Similar to Nong Khiaw, some of the kids in this village had some serious ‘tudes, which was really hilarious at times!

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The school in Huay Bo Village
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Some sassy kids

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After stopping for a beer and a sit break, we made our way back to Muang Ngoi as the sun was going down.  The sky lit up in beautiful reds and purples, illuminating the landscape in a way that was truly magical.

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Walking back to Muang Ngoi
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Gorgeous sky at dusk

Then it got dark, and then it got really dark.  After walking with our flashlights for a while, we decided to turn them off to look at the stars.  It was pitch black, without a hint of light pollution, and there were hundreds of thousands stars to be seen when we looked up at the sky.  We stood there for a long time, to the soundtrack of a hundred thousand chirping crickets.

We were starving when we finally made it back to Muang Ngoi, and stopped at an Indian restaurant called Meen for dinner before heading back to our bungalow for the night.

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The next morning, we woke up intending to take advantage of the endless relaxation to be had in Muang Ngoi.  We got breakfast at a nearby restaurant, then came back to our bungalow to lay in our hammocks and sip Beer Lao, read, and enjoy the stunning view across the river.

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The view from our bungalow
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Doesn’t get much better than this. 🙂

After hanging out and relaxing all day, we went to Riverside Restaurant for dinner and a drink.  The restaurant was also right next to the river and lit up with colorful lanterns.

Muang Ngoi was one of the places where we would have been happy to linger forever, and it was really difficult to leave.  However, we had an epic journey ahead of us and needed to get back to Nong Khiaw in the morning, so we spent the rest of the evening enjoying our last few hours in the tranquil town before retiring back to our bungalow.

2/8

Breakfast: 54,000kip

Boat to Muang Ngoi: 50,000kip

Lunch (Nicksa’s): 35,000kip

Water/Beer: 15,000kip

Cave/Village Entrance: 20,000kip

Beer: 15,000kip

Dinner (Meen): 95,000kip

Nicksa’s Bungalow: 60,000kip

Total Spent: 344,000kip ($42.36 USD)

2/9

Breakfast: 28,000kip

Riverside Restaurant: 123,000kip

2-Water: 10,000kip

Beer: 10,000kip

Nicksa’s Bungalow: 60,000kip

Total Spent: 231,000kip ($28.45 USD)

Nong Khiaw – Exploring Northern Laos

We booked a mini-bus from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw at our hotel.  We were picked up around 8:30am and transported to the bus station, where we were crammed into a minibus and set off to our destination.  The roads were horrible as expected and our driver flew over the potholes in a way that made our heads bang against the ceiling of the van, but we made it there in about three and a half hours instead of the four or five we were expecting.

We were hounded by tuk tuk drivers offering us rides into the town, but it was a short walk so we decided to go on our own.  Once there, we negotiated a room with a balcony overlooking the river for 50,000kip a night, which we were very pleased about.

Nong Khiaw is absolutely stunning and the epitome of peaceful.  It’s situated between towering mountains and divided by the Ou River, surrounded by fantastic views and charming in itself.  The local children are adorable to watch as they bike and run up and down the road playing and teasing passerbys.  One little boy even shot at us with a bamboo mud gun!  We spent the afternoon enjoying the town and went to a fantastic Indian restaurant for dinner.

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The view from our guesthouse in Nong Khiaw

The next day, we set out on adventure to explore the surrounding areas of Nong Khiaw.  We saw signs pointing toward a cave, so we decided to start there.  It ended up being one of the most scenic hikes we’d ever been on!  

The journey started on a dirt road through the mountains.

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Following the dirt road to the caves
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There were loads of funnel-web spiders along the path!

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Soon, we came upon a village where we paid a small fee to get to the cave.  After walking a short way through the village, the painted arrows directed us through breathtaking fields and farms, all surrounded by the towering mountains in the distance.

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Passing through the village
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Walking along the dried rice paddies
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In the wet season, each section is flooded and used to grow rice
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More fields

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After we got through the farms, we followed a small path through the jungle and up to the caves.

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Hiking through the jungle, getting closer to the cave

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When we finally made it to the cave, there were more painted signs that said things like “Assembly Group” and “Meeting Room.”  During the war, this region was heavily bombed, and the local people took shelter in the surrounding caves.  We assumed that the signs had something to do with what they used each ‘room’ of the cave for during those tragic times.

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We finally made it to the Houay Tor Cave!
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A spooky old lantern found in one of the rooms of the cave

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After exploring the cave and making our way back, we arrived back in Nong Khiaw many hours later and got lunch at Delilah’s, a well known cafe in Nong Khiaw.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing after our long and difficult hike before getting dinner at Deen, the same Indian restaurant we went to the night before.  (That’s how much we loved it!)

Nong Khiaw was beautiful, and well worth the horrid bus ride north from Luang Prabang; and we would be venturing even further north to Muang Ngoi the following day!

2/6

Bus to Nong Khiaw: 130,000kip

Snacks: 7,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Vinat Restaurant: 60,000kip

Deen Indian Restaurant: 71,000kip

Accommodation: 50,000kip

2/6 Total Spent: 323,000kip ($39.89 USD)

2/7

Breakfast: 40,000kip

Huoy Tor Cave Entrance Fee: 10,000kip

Delilah’s (Lunch): 85,000kip

Deen Indian Restaurant: 72,000kip

Accommodation: 50,000kip

2/7 Total Spent: 257,000kip ($31.74 USD)

Visiting the Pak Ou Caves and Our First Motorbike Accident

About 25 km north of Luang Prabang lie the Pak Ou Caves, two caves that are full of hundreds and hundreds of Buddha statues.  To visit them, you can take a tuk tuk, a boat, or do what we did and rent a moto for the day.

We knew that the route we were taking was going to be lots of dirt paths and some major roadways with traffic, so we opted for a manual motorbike in hopes it would make for an easier journey.  Off roading on a manual motorbike we’ve never driven before?  Sounds like a great idea, right?

The trip started out a little jerky but once Jojo got the hang of the gear shifting, we were cruising along just fine.  Then we reached the beginning of the dirt road.

Bumpy does not even begin describe this road.  We were flying six inches off the seat as we made our way around hairpin turns and up and down dangerously steep inclines.  While it was admittedly terrifying and painful, it was also absolutely thrilling!  We were alone on the road apart from a few locals whizzing by us (and probably laughing at our pathetic attempt at driving on this road.)

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Jojo in front of some of the beautiful scenery we passed while driving to the Pak Ou Caves
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The glorious dirt road

We came to a particularly precipitous incline and started our ascent in second gear, but we were moving too slow and about half way up the hill, the bike slowed to a halt.  When the bike stopped, Jojo switched to first gear, but he was still holding the throttle all the way open.  The bike tried to fly forward, but our weight pulled it back so that instead of taking us up the hill, the front wheel flew up in the air and threw me backwards onto my back.  Time slowed, and I watched in horror as Jojo and the motorbike stood straight up and began descending toward me.  I saw it before it happened: me breaking Joe’s fall, and Joe breaking the bike’s fall.  It would have been a grisly event if Joe hadn’t thrown his weight forward at the last second, re-grounding the wheels and saving us both from being crushed by the bike.  We made it out with a few scrapes and bruises, but we were thankfully unhurt otherwise.  Not to mention, our tablet that I landed on top of, and our camera that was in my hands during the fall suffered no damage–we seriously lucked out!

The rest of the way was mercifully uneventful.  The roads were still treacherous, but Jojo had gotten more acclimated with the bike after our close call and we enjoyed the beautiful scenery as we passed by.

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Passing by farms with mountains in the distance
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We passed lots of animals on our journey, including this adorable baby cow!
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We passed through some villages on our way
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…and our first elephant spotting!! (We pulled over to let them pass.)

Finally we came to a village across the river from the caves.  We parked our bike and hired a boat to take us across for 26,000kip.

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Looking at the caves from across the river
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Boating across to the caves
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The stairs leading up to the caves

When we got to the other side, we got off the boat and walked up the steps to the first cave.  They call it a cave, but it was less of a cave, and more of an overhang–and as promised, it was crammed with Buddha statues of every style and posture!

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Buddha statues in the lower cave

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After exploring the lower cave, we climbed the stairs up to the upper cave.  It was filled with more Buddha statues and went a little deeper than the lower one.  It wasn’t lit up at all, so we had to use our flashlights to explore its depths and find the rest of the statues.

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Exploring the upper cave

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When we were finished with the caves, we got back on the boat that took us to the village where our bike was parked.  We decided to take Route 13 back to the city rather than the back roads, this time!  We made it back to Luang Prabang in good time, but we were really nervous that we would be held responsible for the significant amount of scratches the bike had acquired during our trip to the caves.  We’d heard a lot of horror stories regarding motorbike rental in Luang Prabang, and feared we might be demanded to fork over hundreds of dollars for the damages.  If they noticed the scratches, they didn’t say anything about it and we were relieved to be off the hook!  We finished the day with another dinner of Lao barbecue, grateful for our day of adventure and minimal injury.

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Breakfast: 85,000kip

Motorbike Rental: 120,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Parking: 5,000kip

Boat: 26,000kip

Cave Entrance: 40,000kip

Donation: 5,000kip

Gas: 20,000kip

BBQ: 140,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Accommodation: 80,000kip

Total Spent: 531,000kip ($65.85 USD)

Partying in Luang Prabang – The Bowling Alley

We spent our fourth day in Luang Prabang doing mostly nothing, which was absolutely glorious.

We started off with breakfast at a cafe by the river, then headed to a local bar/restaurant/lounge called Utopia, the same one we had spent an evening drinking, a few days before.  Boasting to be “Zen by Day, Groovy by Night,” Utopia was the perfect place to lay back and relax the day away, lounging on cushions on the deck overlooking the river.

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Sitting by the river on the deck of Utopia

After laying around all day, we decided to watch the sunset at Wat Chom Si.  The Buddhist temple sits atop Mount Phou Si, a 330 foot hill in the center of Luang Prabang, which we climbed up about half an hour before the sun went down.  We hadn’t expected much out of it, but the view of the city and surrounding scenery was surprisingly spectacular!

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The view from the top of Mount Phou Si

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It was a bit cloudy, so the sunset was a little lack luster; but once it had disappeared behind the mountains, the clouds lit up in all kinds of stunning colors.

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Then, we walked around the temple to see the moon on the other side!

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We had worked up an appetite climbing up and down the hill, and decided on another dinner of Lao barbecue.  This time, we tried a place by the river where each person gets a plate for 60,000kip, and can refill it an unlimited number of times with raw meats and veggies to cook.

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We had heard it on the lips of other backpackers many times since arriving in Luang Prabang: “Have you been to the bowling alley?” The bowling alley is one of the few establishments open past the midnight curfew in the city, and where all of the boisterous partiers go when the bars in town shut down.  We were curious, but hadn’t made it there yet, mostly because we usually go to bed long before anyone goes there.

On this night, we were determined to see what it was about.  We headed back to Utopia around 10, where most of the backpackers seem to start their nights.  After a few beers in the garden, things started to shut down around 11:30.  At this point, there was a mass exodus down the path to a hoard of tuk-tuks waiting to shuttle people to the bowling alley.  As we walked toward them, we made fast friends with a pair of Dutch guys that were happy to bargain for us down to only 5,000kip each for the ride.

Once our tuk tuk was full, we set out on a short ride to the lanes.  I think we had expected some kind of swag bowling alley, but it the exact opposite.  The place was all white concrete and bright, BRIGHT fluorescent lights–not at all what you’d expect for a late night party spot, but party we did.  The group of us in the tuk tuk ended up going in on a lane together which cost 20,000kip per person, per game.  Every lane was packed with backpackers drinking, bowling, and being extremely loud, as is expected.  Our lane was no exception and we soon made friends with the group of people in the lane next to us, making our crowd even bigger and louder.  It was really quite fun!

Around 2am, our group decided it was time to head back to town, so we shared a loud, drunken, and hilarious tuk tuk ride back to our guesthouses.  Shamefully, we didn’t have a camera or phone on us so we don’t have any pictures of the night, but we will surely hold the memory forever in our hearts.

Breakfast: 60,000kip

Utopia: 100,000kip

Mount Phou Si Fee: 40,000kip

Street Barbecue: 150,000kip

Utopia: 85,000kip

Tuk Tuk: 10,000kip

Bowling Alley: 110,000kip

Tuk Tuk: 20,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Accommodation: 80,000kip

Total Spent: 660,000kip ($81.51 USD)

Luang Prabang – Bed Bugs and the Kuang Si Waterfall

We woke up around 9am, realizing in horror that we had been afflicted by one of a traveler’s (or anyone’s) worst fears: bed bugs.

While I had accidentally (and thankfully) fallen asleep before washing the Deet I had applied the night before off of my skin, Jojo had not been so lucky.  We quickly packed up our things and got the hell out of there, desperately clinging to the hope that the bugs had not taken our bags for a new home, or a nursery to lay their eggs.

Visions of toting around these disgusting creatures, for weeks or months to come, plagued our minds as we searched for a new place to stay.  We found a place closer to the city center called Chitlatda Guesthouse for only 80,000kip a night, and quickly took it.  It was easily the cheapest place we had found in town and the quality wasn’t bad, either.

To take our minds off of the miserable morning, we walked to the Mekong River for lunch.  We stopped at the first place we came across, a French-styled open air cafe, where we got some of the most delicious barbecued chicken ever!

After walking back to the guesthouse and spending way too much time researching how to get rid of bed bugs while traveling, we decided we would catch the sunset over the river at another one of the cafes while enjoying a dessert of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with mango, and a mojito.

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Sunset over the Mekong River

Once the sun had gone down, we took a walk along the night market where we treated ourselves to a fresh donut and a couple of clothing items we had been longing for.

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Luang Prabang Night Market

For dinner we ate at a small cafe near our guesthouse in the center of town, where we were served what seemed to be instant curry loaded up with MSG.  Not the greatest meal ever, but everything else we had eaten that day had been excellent so it was okay.  After some more bed bug research, we finally resigned ourselves to sleep, hopelessly attempting to avoid thinking about being dined on by insects.

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We awoke the next day with no new bug bites, to our immense relief!  Although it was still possible we were carrying them in our packs, it seemed promising that we had not been bitten again.

We got up and went out for breakfast at a street food stand selling sandwiches, crepes, and fruit shakes.  While we were eating, a tuk tuk driver approached us offering a ride to the Kuang Si Waterfall which was where we had planned to go on this day.

After negotiating down to 40,000kip each roundtrip, and waiting around for the driver to find enough passengers to fill his tuk tuk, we started on the one hour journey to the falls.  We chatted with the other passengers along the way, including an elderly Japanese man that invited us to come stay with him if we planned to visit Japan.  He even insisted that we trade information so we could contact him.  (Perhaps a visit to Japan is now in our future?)

Upon arrival, the tuk tuk dropped us in the shopping area just before the entrance to the falls.  He told us to meet back in the same place two hours from then so that we could ride back to the city.  We paid the entrance fee to the Kuang Si waterfalls (20,000kip each) and started our ascent!

Before getting to the water, the small trail lead us to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center which is a Free the Bears facility dedicated to the rescue and conservation of Asiatic Black Bears.  The center houses a moon bear by the name of ChamPa who underwent the first ever neurosurgery procedure on a bear in 2013, to treat a case of hydrocephalus.  The story was featured in National Geographic, which you can read about here.  The bears have large structures that they can climb and play on, as well as hammocks, ponds, and toys.  We walked around the facility, watching them lounging and playing together.  The Bear Rescue Center receives no funding from the Kuang Si Waterfall entrance fee (even though you have to pay it to get to the bear center) so we left a small donation as well.

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Bear playing at the Rescue Center

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After the bears, we followed the rest of the trail to the base of the Kuang Si Waterfalls.  We ascended the mountain through an endless series of pools of beautiful turquoise water.  There were lots of people swimming in the pools, but the water was very cold!

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Jojo in front of Kuang Si Waterfall pools
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Walking through more pools
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And across…

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When we made it to the top of the pools, we crossed the bridge to begin our ascent to the top of the waterfall.  The whole way was very steep, and we were breathless by the time we reached the top.

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The bottom of the Kuang Si waterfall
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The view of the waterfall from the bridge
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Climbing up the mountain

It was all worth it when we got to look down over the waterfall to the pools below, and the lush mountains in the distance.

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Looking down from the top of the Kuang Si waterfall
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The view from the top of the waterfall

We met up with the tuk tuk driver and took us back to city center where we got dinner at another cafe by the river.  Jojo decided to try something called “luang prabang sausage” which was a mysterious ground substance that tasted kind of like meatloaf.

After that, we meandered the night market once more and treated ourselves to khao nom kok, little cakes made with rice flour and coconut cream, before heading back to the guesthouse.

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Luang Prabang Night Market

2/1

Water: 5,000kip

Lunch on the Mekong: 113,000kip

Sticky Rice/Mojito at Sunset: 47,000kip

Night Market Clothes: 265,000kip

Donut: 10,000kip

Curry Dinner: 67,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Accommodation: 80,000kip

Total Spent: 592,000kip ($72.31 USD)

2/2

Street Food Breakfast: 45,000kip

Tuk Tuk: 80,000kip

Kuang Si Entrance Fee: 40,000kip

Beer: 12,000kip

Dinner: 125,000kip

Khao Nom Kok: 5,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Accommodation: 80,000kip

Total Spent: 387,000kip ($47.27 USD)

Luang Prabang – Relaxing in the City

We took a sleeper bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang which might have been one of the worst decisions we have made thus far.  Firstly, the sleeper bus cost us more than a day bus would have (which means we didn’t actually save any money by not paying for accommodation), and this sleeper bus made the sleeper buses in Vietnam seem like a luxury.  Instead of getting our own reclining seats, we were both cramped together in a space on the floor, about the size of a child’s bed, with nothing but two blankets and a couple of dirty pillows.  After attempting to sleep in positions that would make a chiropractor’s eyes bleed, we finally made it to Luang Prabang at about 6:30 in the morning.

After negotiating a tuk tuk down to 15,000kip per person into the city center, we wandered the streets exhausted, looking for reasonably priced accommodation.  After going from guesthouse to guesthouse, another traveler approached us and told us that he too had tried to find accommodation in the price range we were hoping for, only to find that everywhere in the area was at least 120,000kip for a double room.  By Western standards, 130,000kip ($16) is not much for a double room, but by comparison it’s quite a lot more than most budget accommodations in Laos and more than most places we stayed in Vietnam.  We relented and booked a room in Central Backpackers Hostel (which is not central at all), assuring ourselves that the nice room and free breakfast made it worth it.

We decided that we deserved a nap after a sleepless night, and woke up around noonish.  We walked to the center of town where several stalls are set up next to each other selling sandwiches, crepes, and fruit shakes.  All of the stalls sell the exact same things and they are there every day.  A couple sandwiches and a banana shake later, we wandered around the city to get an idea of what it had to offer.

Luang Prabang is sleepy and laid back like Vientiane, but the scenery is admittedly much better.  It sits at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan river, so many of the guesthouses and restaurants sit next to the water.  Additionally, the city itself is lush with trees and jungle plants which add to the charming atmosphere.

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Monks across the river

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We headed to a local cafe with the intention of using the internet, (only to find that it didn’t work) but we got some treats anyway.  We decided to hang out in the common area of our hostel to do some internet surfing instead which ended up working out much better…until the city wide blackout!  It happened out of no where and no one seemed to be perturbed by it.  Everything was normal, then all of a sudden we were sitting in complete and utter darkness.  It was actually kind of exciting!  Plus, the power came back on after 20-30 minutes so it wasn’t a real issue.

For dinner we decided to try a place called Lao Lao Garden.  After walking through the main entrance, we found ourselves outside again in their enormous garden patio surrounded by trees and plants.  It literally felt like we were sitting in the middle of the jungle even though we were right in the middle of the city.  This is where we got our first chance to try traditional Lao barbecue.  Our waiter lifted the center tile of our table to reveal a small pit where he put a cement block filled with burning coals.  After setting a hot plate shaped like an upside down bowl on top, he poured soup in the ring around the plate and set a big chunk of animal fat in top. He put baskets of raw meat and vegetables on the table next to us and instructed us to start cooking!

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Surprise hole in the table where the coals go

First you put vermicelli noodles and vegetables in the soup, then set the meat on top to cook.  It was a little time consuming but also quite fun.  We were given buffalo, chicken, and pork along with a large assortment of veggies.  The food was decent but what really got us was the peanut tamarind sauce they serve on the side…yum!

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Big hunk of fat in the middle in to grease the hot plate!

After dinner we walked across the street and down a small path to a well known backpacker hangout called Utopia.  After getting a couple of Beer Laos at the bar, we sat down in the center space where they have a bunch of mats and lounging pillows on the floor to hang out on.  The place was really large; it also had a sand volleyball pit, a deck overlooking the river, and scattered tables all in a jungle like setting.  They also played some half way decent down tempo music (for the most part) which was a welcome change from most bars in Southeast Asia!  We had a lot of fun here, and ended up hanging out with a big group of people from Brazil, Italy, the UK and a dozen other countries.  Unlike in Vang Vieng, we had the sense (and we were just tired) to leave before going over the top, and called it a night around 11:30; a relaxing but good start to our stay in Luang Prabang!

Sandwiches: 45,000kip ($5.54 USD)

Shake: 10,000kip ($1.23 USD)

Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)

2-Beer: 20,000kip ($2.46 USD)

Joma Cafe: 30,000kip ($3.69 USD)

Lao Lao Garden: 123,000kip ($15.14 USD)

Utopia: 50,000kip ($6.15 USD)

Accommodation: 130,000kip ($16 USD)

Total Spent: 413,000kip ($50.83 USD)