First Stop in Laos – Houay Xai
Once we had crossed the border, a short drive in a Tuk Tuk took us to our guesthouse for the night in Houay Xai, it was a quaint colonial looking place with loads of character called the Oudomphone Guesthouse, again, as I had booked a tour this time around, instead of the pass I had in NZ, I was allocated a very respectable double room.
The group was quite large by this stage and we all went to a local restaurant for dinner, Chao decided to treat us all to some shots of the local spirit and the local beers, in typical Stray fashion, this led to a late-night session with us sampling the local rice whiskey and Lao beer, which soon became a firm favourite with the group.
Houay Xai to Mekong Homestay (Ban Thanoune Village)
We were up early and headed for the boat dock for our trip down the river, the boat was quite interesting, it was run by a family, a couple and their 2 children. The father skippered the boat, the mother cooked the meals we had on board, the son helped in all other aspects and was also shown how to steer at times, the daughter was too small to be of much help yet.
We spent about 8 hours on the river, there wasn’t much to do, so it gave us all. Chance to relax and charge our batteries, the river is used by many fishermen trying to catch the large catfish which populate it, and surprisingly there was also plenty of people at the riverbank panning for gold. Chao kept us going with plentiful supplies of Lao-Lao, the local whiskey during the trip and we played many different card games to keep us amused.
On our arrival at the village we were met by the village elders, in the meeting house who greeted us by presenting us with some sweet rice parcels and 2 shots of their very strong spirits, they then performed a welcoming Baci Ceremony, which included us having lengths of white cotton tied around our wrists by each of the elders whilst reciting a prayer wishing us good fortune and safe travels.
We were then taken in groups of three to the home in which we were staying, I was with Oggy and Simon, and we went to the home of an old couple who welcomed us and showed us where our beds were, this turned out to be very basic, a thin mattress on the floor, a pillow and blanket, all covered by a giant mosquito net, as we were unable to communicate with the host we went to bed early. I was wakened around 3:30 by a thunderstorm and heavy rain in the tin roof, then dozed until it was time to rise and head back to the boat.
Ban Thanoune Village to Luang Prabang
After giving a small gift to our hostess, we headed back through the mud to the riverbank and back onto the boat to continue our trip down the river to Luang Prabang, stopping on the way to visit the Cave of a Thousand Buddas.
When we arrived, we checked into our accommodation, The Ahem Guesthouse at the Aussie Sports Bar. The room. I had was very good, again in a colonial style with loads of dark wood fittings, a good shower was the first thing I had before heading out to explore the town and to buy a SIM card for my phone. The city is quite small and retains much of its French colonial past, making it quite attractive. We were told that a walk up the nearby Phousie Hill, provided excellent views of the city and hat it was a nice place to see the sunset, a few of us made the effort (another load of stairs to climb) and it was well worth it. Another recommendation was for Utopia, a local bar/diner, Oggy, Cairan, Emma and I paid it a visit for a couple of beers and some food, we were not disappointed, back to the hotel for a relatively early night finished off a pretty full day.
In the morning a group of us were collected from the hotel and taken to A Rice Experience at the Living Land Farm, a local farming community centre where we were taken through the 13 stages required to cultivate the local sticky rice and other products. We were shown how to select the best future crop rice, we then got in up to our knees in the muddy paddy field to sow the rice in a nursery bed, we then enlisted the help of Susan, a friendly Water Buffalo in ploughing the field, then we planted the seedlings. When the rice was ready for harvest, we were shown how to harvest it and thrash it to recover the grains. In the farmhouse the process of turning it into a usable product was demonstrated, we were then able to sample the end product in a variety of ways. All in all, it was a very good visit and it made me appreciate rice a little bit more.
At the end of our tour, we were met by the rest of our group and we all went to the Kuang Si waterfalls, a nearby beauty spot with a rescue bear sanctuary and lovely waterfalls with cool blue water pools for swimming in it was a great way to spend an afternoon, the water was so refreshing.
To finish off the day, as I had a little tension in my shoulders, I went to the Sabye Sabye Spa next door to the hotel for a 1-hour massage again this was one of the most relaxing hours I’ve spent and the massage was even better than the one I had in Bangkok. In the evening a group of us visited the Dara Night Market to buy some trinkets, then we went for a nice meal in one of the many cafes and restaurants in a street full of old French-style building. A couple of beers in the hotel bar finished off the day.
Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
Another early start, with even more people joining the group. We left Luang Prabang heading to Vang Vieng, we were given the option of taking an easy road for a 7-hour journey, or a rough road over the mountains or a 4½ hour journey, we choose the latter. The journey certainly was memorable, the road, if you could call it that, was extremely rough, with remnants of the landslides of the recent rainy season still visible, but the scenery more than compensated, it was stunning, to say the least, and certainly not what I was expecting of Laos.
Once we had checked into our hotel, the Vilayvong Hotel, which again was of a very good standard, we were taken into town by our new local guide, La, for lunch, (Chao had to leave us for family reasons). We then all boarded a Tuk-Tuk and took a ride to the most well known hot spot in Vang Vieng, the “Blue Lagoon”, a swimming spot famous for its aquamarine water, it was an afternoon having fun in the water.
This morning I decided to chill out sitting on the balcony, transfer my photos to my iPad, update my journal and recharge my batteries. However, things went a bit weird after a while as I dropped my little speaker which wrecked it, then my phone totally froze and I had no other option but to do a factory reset.
Leaving the phone to update I went for a swim before lunch then Oggy and I decided to visit a local viewpoint called Nam Xay, to get to the top was quite a difficult trek and I was quite pleased to have done it. At the top the views were spectacular, someone had taken and planted a motorbike in the rocks at the top and it was great fun sitting astride it gazing out over the beautiful valley below. Our fun was soon spoiled when one of the worst thunderstorms started and a crowd of us huddled together under a tin roof, within a few minutes we could hardly see in front of us. Eventually, we decided the best course was to descend, slipping and sliding all the way, we returned to the hotel absolutely soaked through and covered in mud.
In the evening we went for a meal in the Happy Mango, a very good Thai restaurant and a stroll through the night market before an early night.
Vang Vieng to Vientiane
A fairy longish bus trip over some extremely rough roads took us to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, it was certainly different to the town’s we had stayed in so far. On arrival, we visited Cope, where we had a presentation on the ‘secret war’, and the damage still being experienced by the Lao people by the millions of bombs dropped by the USA in the ’60s and ’70s,
We then went to Pha That Luang stupa, reputed to be Laos’ most important Buddhist monument, a visit to Patuxai Monument, a massive victory arch supposedly resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris before checking into the hotel, the Mixey Paradise, which was of a good standard. A few of us went with La to a really good restaurant called Khop Chai Deu, where I had a Discovery Lao meal which was really special, a couple of beers in Tully’s, a nearby Irish bar finished off the day.
Vientiane to Ban Thongkha village (Nathane Valley)
Another day spent travelling over rough mountain roads, we stopped at a few places on the way for toilet breaks and for lunch, we also stopped at a viewpoint at the limestone forest at Hin Boun, this gave us stunning views over the breathtaking geology.
We continued on our way and arrived at the Thongdam bungalows in Ban Thongkha village, we arrived around 4:00pm and after settling into our bungalows, a few of us went for a stroll around the village, the village is quite a big one with just over 500 families, whose main income is from the many rice fields surrounding it, after the rice harvest is over they then grow tobacco. The people, especially the children, were so friendly and welcoming.
We all came together at dinner time and we all had great fun with a few games of UNO, it was helped along the way with a few local BeerLao’s.
Ban Thongkha village
In the morning after breakfast, we took a short bus trip to the Konglor-Natane cave, this cave has the Nam Hin Boun river, 7.5 kilometres long, running through it. It was discovered in the 13th century when villagers on one side wondered where all their ducks were disappearing to, and why the villagers on the other side of the mountain were having regular barbecued duck, a couple of brave villagers then discovered the route through on a bamboo raft, the short 1 hour journey was much better than the 7 hour trek up and over the mountain.
Our journey was breathtaking, to say the least, we went, 3 at a time on a long motor dugout canoe, skippered by a local villager, who skilfully navigated us to a grotto of stalactites and stalagmites before taking us to the other side, as the river was at a low level, we stopped along the way to walk across the shallow parts. It was a really special journey which ended at a beautiful lagoon, where we all went for a swim.
We returned to the village in time for lunch before having a relaxing afternoon chilling out on the hammock at the bungalow.
In the evening, there was a festival in the village to celebrate Awk Phansa, the end of the 3 months long Buddist lent. The village was busy with all the ladies and girls in traditional costume casting into the river floral wreaths, made by the children, from banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks, the boys meanwhile we’re happy setting off firecrackers. There was something for everyone, gambling games for the adult men, a shooting gallery, burst the balloon dart game, food stalls, a mini-market and a music stage which played loud music until the early hours, it was great fun and I wished I could have spent a much longer time there.
Another long day travelling over pretty poor roads to Savannakhet, a new stop on the Stray route, when we arrived there our first stop after checking in to the hotel, the Avalon Residence Guesthouse, was to take Oggy to the local hospital, he had cut his foot while swimming at the cave and it wasn’t healing so he ended up with a few stitches, a tetanus jab and some antibiotics, I doubt I will ever complain about the NHS again, the level of care and attention he received was excellent and could not be faulted, but the facilities were dreadful.
There really wasn’t much to do in the city and we weren’t going to be there long, so dinner with the group in a local restaurant brought a bit of fun, it looked like a new place and that got all of our orders wrong, mixing up our meals, What I had was very good but it took hours to get. After dinner we went down to the riverfront to see the End of Lent festival there, as this was a bigger city, the crowds were massive and we found it difficult to move through them, we eventually gave up and returned to the hotel, getting back was great fun, we all managed to get onto one tuk-tuk, 15 of us, including the driver, speeding through the night to the delight of the locals who saw us.
Savannakhet to Pakse
Another early start and a long drive to Pakse, we stopped for lunch and booked into the Khamfong Sihavong Hotel, before heading to the stunning Tad Ngeuang waterfall, another place of beauty with a nice pool to swim in. We then headed into the Bolaven Plateau, where Laos’ main export of coffee is grown, the landscape was very different from the other areas we had visited.
We then returned to Pakse and our hotel for a quick freshening up before going out for dinner, we all then went to a rooftop bar for views of the city at the end of the day.
Pakse to Don Det
A fairly early start this morning, and as the hotel didn’t do breakfast, a nice croissant and coffee from a good local bakery started the day off. We then a fairly short drive to the post for the boat trip to Don Det, one of the islands in the area know as 4000 islands.
We checked into the Le Bijou guesthouse and had a look at the village before having lunch.
In the afternoon six of us, Cairan and Emma, Simon, Shane, Carl and I decided to go on a kayaking trip down the Mekong. It was great fun, especially shooting the rapid sections and trying to avoid the many bushes blocking our way. There were also few mishaps along the way, a couple of capsizes, but we all got home safely if not a wee bit wet. We all agreed that this was one of the highlights of our trip so far, in addition to the kayaking, we took a boat trip to an area where we saw some rare Irawdy dolphins, of which there are less than 20 left in this part of the Mekong, we also visited a nice waterfall and had a 45-minute bumpy tuk-tuk trip back to the village.
A quick shower and a wee rest set me up for the evening, where we all had dinner and a few drinks as we said farewell to the 7 hopping off to spend more time on the islands, while the remaining group headed to the border with Cambodia.