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!

Pha That Luang and Buddha Park – “The Most Psychedelic Place in Laos”

On our second day in Vientiane, we had a couple of destinations in mind, that were a bit far from city center, so we decided to rent a motorbike to get around more efficiently.

Our first stop was Pha That Luang, a large Buddhist stupa covered in gold and regarded as the most important Laotian national monument.  Built in the 16th century, it really is quite stunning and impressive to walk around.  It wasn’t terribly crowded and you can also buy a flower to offer if you want to.

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Nicole in front of Pha That Luang

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We were permitted to enter one of the halls and found that it was full of truly visionary paintings!

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We spent quite a bit of time exploring the grounds and all of the sculptures around Pha That Luang.  We visited quite a few temples in Vietnam but this was easily one of our favorites places.

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Our next destination was Buddha Park, located about an hour outside of Vientiane.  We downloaded a map onto the tablet (better safe than sorry) and made our way there on our motorbike.  On the way, we passed a couple of noteworthy sites including the Lao Brewery and the Friendship Bridge that connects Laos to Thailand.

When we arrived at Buddha Park, we paid a small fee to park our moto and another to enter the park.  We also had to pay extra to take a camera in but all in all it still added up to less than three dollars.

We had been there for no more than a few minutes before Jojo had decided that this was his favorite place we had ever visited.  At the front of the park near the entrance sits a large pumpkin-shaped structure that you can go inside and climb to the top.  Inside, there are some of the creepiest and downright disturbing statues we had ever seen.  Come to find out, the three levels inside the pumpkin structure are meant to represent hell, earth, and heaven.  You enter through the mouth of a demon and climb your way up through hell and earth, to heaven where you can look down on the entire park.

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The pumpkin structure in Buddha Park
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Jojo entering the demon head at the base of the pumpkin
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Terrifying sculptures in the ‘hell level’
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Climbing into the ‘earth level’
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We made it up to heaven!
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View from the top of the pumpkin structure

The entire park is full of beautiful and bizarre statues that you can walk through and look at.  Some of our favorites were the enormous sleeping buddha and this other scaley manfish thing eating what looked like another head…?

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At the far end of the park is a tower that you can climb into.  The steps start out normal sized, but get narrower as you ascend until only your tip-toes can fit on the step.

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We had worked up an appetite exploring the park and decided to stop for lunch.  After waiting an hour and a half for our food (we will literally always sit that long before bothering to ask what is going on), we walked around the park one last time, then headed back to Vientiane.

For dinner we couldn’t resist going to Lao Kitchen again for some duck laap – it is that good!  This time, we also treated ourselves to a dessert of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with slices of mango–yum.

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Enjoying some duck laap and thai curry at Lao Kitchen

Breakfast: 55,000kip ($6.77 USD)

Moto Rental: 80,000kip ($9.85 USD)

Buddha Park: 13,000kip ($1.60 USD)

Parking: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)

Lunch: 46,000kip ($5.62 USD)

Green Tea Cappucino: 25,000kip ($3.08 USD)

Dinner: 129,000kip ($15.88 USD)

Accommodation: 70,000kip ($8.62 USD)

Total Spent: 423,000kip ($52.06 USD)

Vientiane – Exploring the Quiet Capital

We had dedicated our first full day in Vientiane to one of our favorite activities of simply wandering around.

Our first stop was That Dam, also known as the Black Stupa.  Legend has it that this structure was once covered in gold and inhabited by a naga, a seven-headed serpent, that tried to protect it during the Siamese-Laotian War in the early 19th century.  Allegedly, all of the gold was taken by the Siamese Army during the attack on Vientiane.  The structure isn’t really ‘used’ for anything anymore, other than a centerpiece for city festivals and events, but it is still regarded as a ‘guardian spirit’ of the city.

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That Dam, aka Black Stupa

As we walked along the streets of Vientiane, we were careful to avoid the loose concrete slabs that line the sidewalks.  Underneath is the sewage system and in some places there are large gaps where an unknowing passerby might find him/herself falling into grey water.

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Exposed grey water

Our next stop was the Patuxai Arch, also known as the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane.  The concrete used to construct Patuxai was actually donated to Laos by the United States for the purpose of building a new airport.  The Laotian government had another idea in mind, which is how it got its nickname: the vertical runway.  Patuxai is dedicated to the people who struggled for independence from France, so it is just slightly larger than the Arc de Triomphe, to trump its French counterpart.

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Walking to Patuxai
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Nicole sitting in front of Patuxai, aka the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane
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Ceiling underneath Patuxai

We paid a small fee to climb the steps to the top where we got a beautiful view of Vientiane and the fountains below.  Although it was clearly inspired by the Arc de Triomphe, it has a lot of traditional Laotian architecture and design as well.

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Jojo looking out over the roof of Patuxai
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Architectural detail of one of the towers
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The view from the top of Patuxai

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For lunch we decided to try a local dish: papaya salad.  It’s made with shredded, unripened papaya flavored with shrimp, crab, and fish paste giving it a very pungent flavor.  It’s also quite spicy.  Not terrible, but probably wouldn’t get it again.

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Papaya salad

After lunch, we wandered around Vientiane and stumbled upon some beautiful pagodas and other monuments.  The city seems relatively empty most of the time and we really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.

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Jojo posing in front of the World Peace Gong
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The emergency room in Vientiane
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Chao Anouvong (the monarch and leader of the Laotian Rebellion)

Several times, we were enthusiastically approached by Chinese tourists insisting that we pose for pictures with them.  Sometimes it would be a group of 20-something girls and sometimes it was middle-aged couples, but every time it included at least 5 different photos of us in different arrangements.  It was really strange and without explanation, but we found it quite humorous.

We made our way back to city center for dinner at Lao Kitchen where we tried another local specialty: laap.  Laap consists of minced meat (we went for duck) flavored with fish sauce, lime, mint, and chili along with an assortment of other spices and herbs.  In contrast with the papaya salad we had tried earlier, we really enjoyed this dish and thought it was actually the best food we had tried since arriving in Southeast Asia.

We ended the night at Bor Pen Nyang, a local bar with a balcony overlooking the river.  It was full of people but still really relaxed at the same time – a great end to our first day in Laos!

Breakfast: 70,000kip ($8.62 USD)

Patuxai: 6,000kip ($0.74 USD)

Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)

Sunscreen: 90,000kip ($11.08 USD)

Lunch: 60,000kip ($7.38 USD)

Dinner: 73,000kip ($8.98 USD)

Bor Pen Nyang: 60,000kip ($7.38 USD)

Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)

Accommodation: 70,000kip ($8.62 USD)

Total Spent: 439,000kip = ($54.03 USD)

Getting to Laos – An epic journey from Hanoi to Vientiane

We had our hotel book a bus ticket for us in Hanoi.  Depending on who you asked or what you read, the journey to Vientiane, Laos would be somewhere between 24 and 31 hours.

“Is this a sleeper bus?”

“Yes, yes, sleep!”

At 5pm, a man on a motorbike showed up at our hotel and beckoned us to follow him.  “Laos?  You come.”  We picked up our bags and followed this man through the streets of Hanoi, where he was literally corralling a group of backpackers on the side of the road.  He pointed at us, pointed at the group, then took off to go wrangle up some more.

Once all of the passengers had been collected, we boarded a small van.  Naturally, there were more people than there were seats on this van, so some of the passengers had to stand/hunch as the van departed.  At this point, we all started joking that this would be the bus to Vientiane.

Luckily for us, and especially for the people standing, the van dropped us at the bus station after a short drive out of the city where we were herded to the desk to collect our tickets.

Our bus was meant to depart at 7pm but it was more like 7:30 or 8.  Once we located the sleeper bus, we found that the storage areas under the bus (where they normally put your bags) was full of goods being sent to Laos.  It is not uncommon for transportation buses to be transporting more than just people, but we had never seen it as packed as this.  In fact, it seemed like transporting people was far from a main priority for the people running this bus.

They started barking at the tourists in Vietnamese and eventually started shouting and pointing, “Bag! Bag!”  We fell in line and handed them our bags and watched them stack our bags up in the aisles of the bus.  Once all of our packs were on board, the bus driver snapped at us again and motioned for us to get out of the way, as they let all of the locals board the bus first.

Once the locals were comfortably seated (all in the front of the bus, by the way) we were nastily ordered to the back of the bus, where we had to climb over and on top of each other’s bags to get to our seats.  At first we were anxious to find that we had been stuck in the very back of the bus, where the seats are all smashed up against each other with about 2 feet of space between the bottom and top rows.  It was very similar to sharing a twin bed with 2 other people,  uncomfortably intimate and squished.  The silver lining was that the seats in the very back of the bus recline all the way so that you can actually lay flat, which ended up making up for the lack of space.

We actually ended up sleeping better on this bus than any of the previous sleeper buses we had taken.  At around 5 or 6am we arrived at the Vietnam-Laos border where we had to wait for the office to open at 7am.

We exited the bus and lined up at the window to get stamped out of Vietnam before we could get our Laotian visas.  After paying a “stamping fee” of $1, we then had to walk 2km to the Laotian side to get our visas processed.  After filling out our applications and waiting around for several hours, we finally got our visas and officially begun our journey through Laos!

We hopped back on the bus once everyone had gotten through the border crossing and made our way to the capital city of Vientiane.  We were thrilled when we arrived by 3pm–a much shorter journey than expected!  When we got off the bus, instead of the usual cluster of people offering taxis and hotels, we were approached by just one man offering all of us a tuk tuk ride (an auto rickshaw used like taxis, instead of cars) into town for 20,000 kip each.  We had done our research before arriving in Laos and had read that the ride should really only be 10-15k each, so we and an Israeli couple we had met decided to pass and try to find something else.  20 meters away from the bus stop, another tuk tuk driver offered us a ride for 15k each so we decided to take that instead.

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We walked around the center city area looking for a cheap room and found one near the river for about $9/night.  It was literally a box with a really crappy bed in it and communal bathrooms down the hall, but it was the cheapest we could find, so we went for it.

We spent the rest of the evening wandering around Vientiane, checking out the modest night market and walking along the river.  Despite being the largest city in the country, it didn’t take long to realize that Laos was going to be much different than Vietnam.  The streets were really open and quiet despite being a Friday night, and our favorite part was that no one was hustling us to buy anything on the street.

We decided to call it a night pretty early since we had been traveling so long, and we were excited to get an early start to our exploration of Vientiane!