Day 58: Leaving Laos

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All the roads lead to… The Mekong?

Whoa, we’ve been on the road for two months now! Tan skin, empty bank accounts, and a smile on our faces, we’re about to start the final month of our journey, exploring Taiwan, Cambodia and finally, once more, Thailand (and we’ll be joined by someone who’s been featured in this blog almost two years ago!!!).

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A ticket to an adventure!

Before doing that, we must share some of the insanely fun stuff we did while in Laos. This time neither of us ended up in an emergency room, but we did participate in an activity that has in the past killed a number of tourists. Some other fun included spiders and snakes, too ๐Ÿ™‚

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On the slow boat.

We started our tour Laos in Thailand, Chiang Mai. Maybe you’ll recognise the route as you read on, as reaching Laos from Thailand, crossing the border at Chiang Khon and then working your way to the south by a river cruise on Mekong River is an insanely popular thing to do amongst backpackers. There are variations of it, instead of boat you can take a bus, you can go to Chiang Rai first, or you can even fly to Luang Prabang to have crazy parties, but here is how we did it, and some tips for you to have a nice trip.

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Mekong River.

We bought our slow boat trip to Luang Prabang in Chiang Mai City Tours for two persons for about 90โ‚ฌ. The fare included a bus to Chiang Khon, a hotel there, transportation to the border and a 2-day boat trip to Luang Prabang. Now, this all sounds wonderful, but honestly, it is not all first class… or even second. In Chiang Khon, we were taken to an old hotel by Mekong River, which didn’t have an aircon and seemed to be held together mostly by spiders and hope. After a complimentary resistance from me, the enginerd got us a room in a totally different hotel, where we sneaked to without telling our original hotel’s staff. We just came back for breakfast, after having slept under an AC and without any bugs ๐Ÿ™‚

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More Mekong River.

In the morning, after our successful stealth mode return to our original hotel and luggage, we were taken to the Lao border by a songthaew. First, there was the border control to leave Thailand, then we were made to pay for a bus to cross the river (about 1.3โ‚ฌ) and then another small fee to enter Laos (2.6โ‚ฌ) on weekend. Luckily, this year four Northern Europe countries, including Finland, can enter Laos visa-free, due to some strange tourism-boosting thingy. That made the border crossing so much smoother, although we had to wait for the rest of the group for like two hours on the other side of the border.

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Even more Mekong River.

After waiting honestly forever, we were taken by another songthaew to the pier, where the slow boats leave. As the boat ride would take about 6 hours, we decided to prepare by buying some sandwiches in a small (and the only) restaurant there. Due to its history with France, Laos has an impressive coffee and sandwich culture, which we really took an advantaged of while there. And yes, oh yes, against all we know is good, we enjoyed several mayonnaise sandwiches while in Laos, and didn’t get sick. The spell is broken!

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Just one more of Mekong River ๐Ÿ™‚

Now, the slow boat down Mekong River is totally some bucket list stuff, and we warmly recommend it. It is a lot of sitting for two days, but the experience is worth it. Also, they sell beer. The boat itself was a long boat, with rows of old car seats, a shoe ban (you’d get to keep them in a plastic bag) and decent bathrooms. Getting on and off was a bit tricky since there was either a high step or a narrow plank to walk, so if you’re not sure about your balance or strength, you’ll want to opt for some light luggage to make it easier. The boat was okay to sit in, but after two days, we were both sick and tired of dirty car seats.

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This was not a luxury cruise…

The first day we spent our time enjoying some beverages (large Beer Lao was 15000 kip, 1,5โ‚ฌ) and chatting with other passengers, the second day the boat was much smaller and we just tried to get as comfortable as possible. For the night, we stopped at Pak Beng. We had booked our hotel in advance (it was not included in the price), but you could also book one with the boat staff in one of their partner hotels. We were happy with DP Guesthouse, as they had an aircon (yes, it really does make a difference in any of the crazy hot South East Asia countries) and a nice service. On the boat, we were warned that staff in Pak Beng hotels tend to rob their guests, but we had no such problem.

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Finally in Luang Prabang!

On our second day onboard, the boat got into a little storm, and we had to stop for a moment. Nothing too serious, but an exciting and exotic experience. Mekong River is super beautiful even in rain, and we didn’t know how long we’d have to be ashore. However, finally, we arrived in Luang Prabang, the intended destination of the boat.

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Fixed price for a tuk-tuk ride, nice!

Luang Prabang is an insanely popular tourist destination in Laos, famous for its night market, adventures and culture. You could really see and feel the French influence here. During our stay, we decided to go to see maybe the most famous attraction outside the city, the Kuang Si waterfall. Easily accessible by a motorbike or tuk-tuk, it is totally worth visiting and spending a refreshing day swimming and hiking. You could also visit the bear sanctuary, where they keep and take care of rescue bears, saved from being abused and tortured for making drugs for Chinese medicine. Yay, animals that are safe and playing and sleeping all day, as bears shouldย โ™ฅย The entrance fee to the area was 20000 kip per person, or 2โ‚ฌ, and it’s also for visiting the bears.

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“Enjoying” a tuk-tuk ride…

The two of us are guilty of having ridden elephants in Thailand years ago, but would never, ever do that again and always either avoid animal destinations or only visit places that aim to educate, save, treat and/or release the animals back into the wilderness. (You can read the Tripadvisor article on animal safety in tourism here. PETA’s article on elephant riding is also recommended should you ever consider doing it.)

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Kaung Si Waterfall.
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Kuang Si Waterfall.
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Be careful, the steps are slippery!
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Nothing’s better than swimming on a hot day!
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Kuang Si waterfall.

We also went to movies. Can’t really say it was a movie theatre, more like a hotel yard with a screen, outdoor seating, bugs and only one movie playing all times. The movie in question was “Chang (elephant) – A Drama of The Wilderness”, a black and white film from 1927. It was even Oscar-nominated, so don’t underestimate it! Even if you’re more of an MCU person, go check it out and enjoy fresh air, beer and popcorn at Victoria Xiengthong Palace, where it is shown every night at 7PM.

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Traditional medicine or booze…?
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People were getting ready for the boat racing festival.
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Boat racing festival decorations.
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Getting my morning fix of local coffee.

From Luang Prabang, we continued in a minibus (recommended) on the famous tourist route to Vang Vieng, home of trekking, excessive drug using and tubing infamous for having killed several tourists in the past (you can read The Guardian’s article on the topic here, and News.com.au’s article here.) One day, we went swimming inย Blue Lagoon 3 (yes, as you might have guessed, there are indeed three of them), the other, trekking in the jungle with a guide, accompanied by some pigs, and one day was spent floating down the Nam Song river in inner tubes.

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The minibus stopped halfway to Vang Vieng and we got to empty our screaming bladders and admire the view.
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Blue Lagoon 3 and the enginerd showing his best tricks.
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Just a 20-minute walk away from the town centre you can go visit Tham Chang.

 

The hike was super nice, as we spent about 6 hours trekking in the jungle. The path was sometimes really steep, and as horrible as it sounds, there were leeches in the mud on the mountain walls. Our guide, John, from Green Discovery Laos, told us they’ll fall off if you use bug spray, but I decided to play it safe and absolutely covered my legs with DEET to discourage them to approach me in the first place. Leeches were not the only creatures we saw, but a single yet large-ish spider and a ton of other bugs kept us company. Later, there were also a couple of water snake sightings, but luckily not in the forest!

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Not the easiest ascent, but absolutely doable.
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The engineer engineered a hat out of banana tree bark!ย 
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Sometimes the path would just disappear.

However, as we kept on going, we finally arrived in “the secret Eden”, as John called it, an opening between the mountains. Nearly impossible to reach if you don’t know where you’re going, the place was full of plants, easy-to-walk paths, and farm animals hiding in the bushes. This became obvious, when we got lunch company from two pigs, wanting to share our food ๐Ÿ™‚ John told us the local farmers keep their animals here and walk them up and down the same tracks as we did to get over the mountains. This was proven by the cow hoove prints in the mud in the jungle, and cowbell sounds coming from the bushes in the opening.

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A mommy and baby duo came to share our meal with us ๐Ÿ™‚
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Lao bread and veggies.
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Queen of the jungle, obviously.

We stopped by a super magical river near the secret Eden, had lunch which John so professionally made for us and as I was enjoying the view, the enginerd even had a little swim in the river.

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John was always a couple of steps ahead.
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No photo could ever do justice to the jungle.
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The secret Eden.

The next day it was time to try another “extreme sport”, tubing. Yes, tubing is the sport that used to be so dangerous, it had to be seriously tuned town. Spiked drinks, dozens of bars by the river, slides, swings and uncontrolled drug scene kept on taking their victims, until a couple of years ago, the swings were taken down and most bars closed. There were “only” three bars to be pulled into by ropes while we floated down, the first two being at the very start.

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Our shoes have been through some tough times.

We started our little human experience of doing something usually associated with twenty-somethings by renting a tube from here and paid 40 000 kip for renting 2 tubes and a deposit of 20 000 kip which we got back upon returning them. Ride to the river is free if you are willing to wait for more people to come along and share a tuk-tuk, but we were impatient and paid an extra 10 000 kip for a private ride. We were taken to the starting point, about 4 kilometres up Nam Song and left to survive ๐Ÿ˜€

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Let’s do this! A 35 000 kip waterproof bag and a 25 000 kip waterproof case for my cellphone are ready and so are we!

If you’ve been reading about the tubing experience, and are getting more and more disappointed as it’s not that lethal drug fest anymore, don’t. Plenty of people in the bars were high as a kite, and the rest somewhat drunk. Drinking games, free shots and very obvious drug dealing were all there, as well as inappropriately dressed girls and shirtless guys. If you’re not too much into drinking and parties, you might wanna skip being pulled in with ropes from the bars, but then again, it all was super fun. Starting early, maybe even in the morning, might ensure you’ll be floating down in peace.

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A good idea or not..?

We started in early afternoon and were almost the first ones in the first bar, got free shots and then waited for our new friends we had made in a hostel lounge bar the previous night. We ended up spending a couple of hours in the first bar playing beer bong and drinking an excessive amount of beers (as the enginerd convinced me there wouldn’t be more bars down the river ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ). This time, there were two more bars, and parties waiting for us, and when we finally arrived in the final point, we were pulled back to the shore, it was dark and we were nicely drunk. The walk back to return the tubes was short, and there were signs IN BIG CAPITAL LETTERS to guide us.

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The first bar.
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Some brave people being pulled into the shore for drinks.
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The second bar.

All in all, the whole thing took us about 5 hours, the tubing part being about two hours itself. During the rainy season, they promise you a one-hour non-stop ride. We returned the tubes to the shop we got them from, and happily went away. Now, for those of you worried about safety. Yes, it is easy to see how people have been getting killed doing this. The river was shallow, but if a) cannot swim, b) are high as a kite, c) jump into waters you don’t know and d) spend so much time floating it’s already getting dark, it is NOT safe. We held our tubes together and although drunk, it was super easy to just sit in your tube, float away and wave to other tourists and kayakers. Plus, we had our clothes on and were covered in sunscreen, so no burning skin, either (we’re sun smart, aren’t we). We didn’t have life jackets, but you can rent those too, and opt for having a nice couple of hours of safe fun.

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Sunset in Laos.

After Vang Vieng, it was time to keep on moving, and we did what so many others have done before us; took a bus to Vientiane. The capital of Laos has an airport, but it also offers an alternative, cheap way to get into Thailand. Busses go to Udan Thanoi several times a day, and it only costs 22 000 kip (exactly 2.2โ‚ฌ!) to buy a ticket. You can only buy the tickets on the same day at Udon Thani 1 station. The bus will drive to the border, where you’ll get of without your luggage, get a single pass ticket to pass between the border areas (this was included in the price) and walk through the Laos border control. Then you get on the bus again, they drive you to the border and customs of Thailand, you get off with your luggage this time, and you do whatever it is required of you to get into the country. Next, you get back on the bus and you’ll be driven to Udon Thani, where you can, as we did, fly to Bangkok for so much cheaper than from Vientiane. The whole process was hassle free, cost only a couple of euros, and a guide helped us through each step.

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On a full tourist mode now!

After visiting Laos for the first time, all I can say is this: go! Go to Laos if you’re looking for sunshine, cheap food and beer and nature. Just be respectful to the locals, humans and animals alike, as the country is trying to clean up its image to become more of an ecotourism spot, while the famous backpacker culture is still well and alive there. We saw people of every age group, backpackers and nicely dressed elderly ladies, people with children and people travelling alone, all exploring and living their best lives on our journey through Laos.

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We wish to have as fun every day as the two Chinese guys behind me ๐Ÿ™‚

PS: We have finally arrived in Taiwan, where we’re currently just chilling in our beloved Taipei. The city is full of good friends, great food, amazing adventures and new things to do every day! Although it’s raining 24/7, we are super happy to be hereย โ™ฅ

PPS: As we are not exactly famous for being super social while travelling, we’d like to send a huge thanks to all the new people we’ve met over the past two months! Even though some of you may not see us ever again, or read this blog, we know you’re somewhere out there going on adventures. We wish you all happy travelsย โ™ฅโ™ฅ

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