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)