There are three places in Laos that feature in almost every itinerary for those who visit this landlocked country: the modern capital Vientiane, the idyllic riverside town of Vang Vieng, and the ancient capital Luang Prabang. In large part this is simply due to geography: there is only one major north-south road, and anyone coming down from the north (or vice versa) must pass through Luang Prabang to get onto it. Heading south from Luang Prabang there is only one route to Vientiane, and as it passes through Vang Vieng many stop there to break up the long, twisting journey.
The other reason these places feature is that they are three of the standout highlights of Laos. When planning our journey here (my return after two and a half years, Kristen’s first time) there was no question that these three stops would feature highly. The accident on Koh Lanta caused a severe alteration to our plans, and we were forced to delete some more remote places from the menu due to lack of time, and also change our direction of travel. But we still made this classic trio our first stops in Laos, and below is a brief summary of our time in each of them.
In my experience Vientiane tends to polarise people. Some people find it dull and uninteresting, with few tourist sights and tepid nightlife, and want to leave after a day or two; others love its laidback atmosphere and abundance of superb cafes and restaurants, and want to stay for days. We are definitely in the latter group! It’s true that there aren’t many things to see here, and we visited the main tourist sites of Patuxay and That Luang in half a day. But to me the real attraction of Vientiane is its beautiful central area near the Mekong, full of cruisy places to while away the hours chatting, reading or surfing the internet. It’s sometimes hard to believe this is a national capital, it’s so relaxed.
However there have been substantial changes since my first visit, and although still quiet the pace is picking up. The waterfront area has been completed changed, with a landscaped promenade now running for several kilometres along the river (and being expanded at both ends as we speak). There are hoardings up showcasing promised future developments, and they look so modern they would not be out of place on Singapore’s waterfront. What these will do to the atmosphere of Vientiane remains to be seen, but I can’t avoid the feeling that its character will change irrevocably once these glossy modern constructions are built.
Anyway, for the time being it’s still a wonderful place to visit and we were forced to limit ourselves to just three nights here. Once the sightseeing was out of the way this town was all about the food for us, and we sure did dine well! Makphet, a charity restaurant that trains former streetchildren in cooking and hospitality, produces sensational Modern Lao food and we ate there twice. There was another fine dinner at Amphone, an upmarket Modern Lao restaurant that I remembered fondly from my previous visit and can happily say still offers great food. And for something different, a good meal at L’Adresse de Tinay, a newish addition to the city’s extensive array of French bistros and restaurants.
The only real disappointment was that the Intercity Hotel – where I enjoyed two good stays last time – has gone considerably downhill in recent years. Its location is great but the rooms are rundown and the service mediocre. A tip for any future visitors: get dropped off on Rue Francois Ngin on arrival and simply walk around the many hotels and guesthouses on this street until you find one you like. There are plenty of smart-looking yet very affordable places here, and it’s extremely central.
This place doesn’t just polarise people, it’s schizoid. For years it’s had a reputation as a drug haven and for being one of those places that brings out the worst in western backpackers. It’s true that you can visit Vang Vieng and get well and truly messed up on any drug you choose, if you are looking for it, and there are still plenty of “TV bars” playing endless reruns of The Simpsons, Family Guy and even Friends (still!!). Unfortunately this reputation can deter people from visiting the area at all, which is a great shame as I think it is arguably the most beautiful part of Laos.
It’s easy to avoid the mayhem, and when you do you discover a spectacular landscape of jagged karst peaks, sublime river views and gentle villages. Just south the main part of town are plenty of quiet lodgings to suit any budget, and there are some fine restaurants along the waterfront (often attached to upmarket hotels). Activities such as caving, kayaking, trekking and swimming are all on offer, so it’s very easy to spend days here and not get bored. We initially planned just two nights but very quickly extended to three, and would have stayed even longer if we’d had the time.
Activity-wise we took the same day tour organised by Green Discovery that I did a couple of years ago. Combining visits to some caves, walking through the countryside and a Hmong village, lunch and kayaking down the river, it’s a great introduction to the area and we enjoyed our time with guide Toto (there were only the two of us on the tour). The following day we engaged him again to take us to a beautiful area known as The Blue Lagoon, about 7 kms away, which is a swimming hole fed by pure mountain water at the base of a steep hill with a huge cave at the top.
Food-wise, it was almost all Elephant Crossing for us. We were staying at a cheaper guesthouse next door, but the broad outdoor verandah with drop-dead gorgeous views of the mountains enticed for almost every meal during those three days. With good food and free wifi too, why not? One notable exception to our Elephant Crossing rule was a visit to the Organic Fruit Farm Café, which offered tasty fare including a creamy homemade goat cheese. It was with great reluctance we boarded our bus to Luang Prabang on that final morning…
This ancient city has tempted travellers for years, and there is something about this place that gets under your skin and doesn’t want to let you leave. Once again we extended our planned stay here soon after arrival, and ended up spending five days saying “how’s the serenity” to each other frequently with satisfaction. Our enjoyment was enhanced by our accommodation, located at it was next to Wat Nong (one of the 30+ temples) and in a quiet residential part of the old town. I should say however that our sleep was affected by local cats that serenaded us with their unmelodious howling most nights, but I still have fond memories of the place!
Tourist highlights are many in Luang Prabang, and Wat Xieng Thong did entrance us with its unique murals. Kristen has already talked of our night meeting Hien, a local man who worked in a bar and wanted to meet up with us a few days later. He took us up to Phu Si, the high hill in the centre of the town that offers great views of the rivers and the surrounding hills, and then the next day helped us get to Kuang Si waterfall. Located about 30 kms out of town, I didn’t visit this last time I was here and am sorry that I missed it then. It’s quite simply the most stunning waterfall complex I’ve ever seen, with each cascade so perfectly beautiful that it’s hard to believe it’s not artificial. We didn’t get to visit the famous Erewan Falls in Thailand due to the accident, but Kristen said that Kuang Si is even more amazing. On our final morning we got up early to watch the monks parade to receive alms from the locals, and were pleased to find that their path actually wound its way right past our guesthouse!
Yet again, and not surprisingly, the remainder of our time in Luang Prabang was taken up with food (seeing a pattern here?). Kristen will be writing separately about various food highlights, so I won’t go into much detail here. But we were especially taken with Tamarind, a restaurant run by an Australian-Lao couple that specifically aims to broaden the food horizons of its patrons. Although there is “Lao food” available everywhere in Laos, the vast majority of places you come across limit the genuinely Lao options to various kinds of laap, noodle soup and sticky rice. As Tamarind makes clear, this is just a small subset of what Lao people normally eat and they do very well in filling in the knowledge gaps. We ate a fair bit of western food in Luang Prabang too, particularly at Café Ban Wat Sene just a few minutes walk from our guesthouse, and also spent some long afternoons at Sala Café. Finally, on our last two days we also squeezed in some extensive massage time at Hibiscus Spa (also close to where we were staying). Starting from just $11 for an hour and half, who could resist??