Our adventure through Laos started on the 27th of January, coinciding with our one-year anniversary as backpackers. (160 lbs lighter this year) We have visited 13 countries in that time and now we start out on our Laos adventure.
The trip is to serve two main purposes, first to get a new 60 day Thai Visa and second to visit the famous Plain of Jars in Phonsavan. The jars were recently determined to be from around 500 B.C., with the help of carbon dating. This would make them somewhat newer than Stonehenge and around the time of the Pyramids. Much like Stonehenge, WHO built them and WHY is a total mystery.
After much research, we chose to enter Laos by flying from Chiang Mai into Udan Thani, Thailand and then taking a 40-minute minibus to the Friendship Bridge. Direct flights into Laos were too expensive and we just could not see us riding for 12 hours in a stuffed minivan overnight. Besides, we were making this a photo opportunity for us and wanted to spend at least 10-14 days in Laos.
It went like this: (all prices will be per person using U.S. dollars)
- Flight: Chiang Mai to Udon Thani, Thailand $57.58
- Van to Edge of Thailand – Friendship Bridge $05.59
- Bus over Friendship Bridge into Laos $00.56
- Laos 30 day Visa (not be part of an in/out visa run) $41.90
- Taxi to Vientiane from Border to our Lodgings $06.98
Total for the trip from Chaing Mai to Vientiane was $70.71 (without the Laos Visa Fee)
We arrived in a dusty, new capital for Laos, the city of Vientiane. The stop was for one night to get ready for our trip to Vang Vieng, where we hope to begin taking some interesting photos for you as well as a little river tubing. Bus Ticket to Vang Vieng: $6.15
Vang Vieng: A Break in the 8 Hour Bus Ride
The bus dropped us off at the Vang Vieng South Bus Station which turned out to be almost across the road from the room we booked at Pan’s Place but we received some bad news. Pan had overbooked by mistake. Being very apologetic, he took us around the corner from his hotel to another guest house which was a little cheaper than his. Great room with a king size bed, large bathroom, hot showers, HBO on the television and cost was only 80,000 kip or $9.79 U.S. per night for two people. We did not get the name for you guys but it is around the corner from Pan’s Place and starts with ‘Phong…’, just look for the yellow sign with blue letters.
Once settled in our room, we headed down to the Nam Song River to see what we had in the way of water for tubing and kayaking. There was not a huge amount of water but enough for a good time. There are also a number of great caves to explore in Laos.
Motor scooters were only 70,000 Kip per day. You can get to everything VV has to offer in 1 or 2 days for around $7 a day. One adventure we wanted to make was a hot air balloon trip, but for $70 (USD) per person, it was way out of our budget. VV is not a bad location, but be prepared for tourist central and all that goes with it. Without the river, this would have just been another wide spot in the road. The place had so many backpackers you could barely get around. This is not what we are usually looking for. After 3 days here we were off to Luang Prabang by minibus. Bus Ticket to Luang Prabang: $9.90
Luang Prabang: Laos Adventure Continues
Our day started early with a great breakfast to get us on our way to Luang Prabang. Next to a local restaurant we used, just down the street from our hotel, was a really nice lady that was out every morning selling fried banana strips and a sweet bread ball. She would drop the dough in the boiling grease and it would puff up hollow inside. They were fantastic! We bought a dozen of the sweet puffs for our trip for 12,000 Kip or about $1.25. The road was really bad when we started for the first 40 or so kilometers, but the views made up for it. The road was like a snake the whole trip. The 190-kilometer trip takes around 5 hours by minibus. That’s an average of 40 kilometers an hour Anyone who has traveled here in Laos, knows that bus drivers drive twice that fast if at all possible. We arrived at the bus terminal in Luang Prabang and got a Tuk Tuk to our hotel.
We had booked a guesthouse here for $15 a night called the Pathoumphone Guesthouse. This is a huge bargain for Luang Prabang and for the price was not bad at all. King size bed, en-suite bathroom, hot shower, a fan and a great view of the Nam Khan river. We definitely did not need more than a fan during our stay. For sure, not a five-star place, but sufficient for us and better than a bunk bed in a hostel for twice the price.
There are three main streets running north and south in the old city. One along the Mekong River, one along the Nam Khan River and what is THE main street in between. On this street is where the museum, night market and most of the restaurants are. The Pathoumphone Guesthouse is near the Nam Khan and if you are looking for a big room – with hot water – on a budget, then we would suggest that you check it out.
We had chosen just a few things to visit while in LP. One being the 400 steps to Mt Phousi, second the Kuang Si waterfall and last to attend the Tak Bat Alms Ceremony which takes place at sunrise every day.
Luang Prabang was much like Dalat was to us in Vietnam. A city that just did not seem to fit the country it was in. From the time we arrived in Vientiane until we arrived here, Laos was a lot like Cambodia to us, both countries that, due to war and political reasons, did not start their march into the current economic conditions of the rest of the world. Both Cambodia and Laos are far behind the two countries to their east and west, those being Vietnam and Thailand. On a brighter note, Luang Prabang is the only entire city adopted by UNESCO as a world heritage site. All renovation is kept to a high standard that will only add to the city, to the original look. You will not ever see a shiny glass office building in this city. Due to the help of UNESCO, it will remain as it has always been.
Like the accommodations, the higher standards are reflected in the prices of the restaurants and the shops. So, when visiting on a budget, you will have to do a little homework and shop around. We will give you 4 places that we found here, that were very good and median priced for budget-conscious travelers later on in this article.
Day one: We attacked the first of our three goals in this phase of our Laos Adventure: Mt Phousi. We started the trek up its 400 steps pretty early in the day. During mornings through early afternoon it is not crowded at the top and after the fog and haze lifts, it offers some great photo ops. At the top, around the Stupa, is not large and is better visited with fewer people. We went up from the West side on the steps across the street from the museum. The fee to visit is 20,000 Kip or around $2.50 each. We took it really slow and rested several times on the ascent since we are still overweight and still in our mid 60’s. However, we did see people in the 20s and 30s doing the same thing. Mt Phousi is not high, just straight up in most places.
After visiting the Stupa, we went down the opposite side of the mountain toward the Nam Khan. Halfway down we came to another shrine where there were a number of young monks visiting with the tourists. We were walking past the first two and they politely asked where we were from. We told them America and they both broke out in laughter for a minute then began apologizing for laughing. They explained that they sat at the gate and tried to guess what country each tourist was from. Turned out they had both chosen France for us, did not know we looked ‘French’. Another asked if he could practice his English with us. He began slowly asking us basic questions, like where we lived, how many children we had, how we liked Laos. We could tell that they were the phrases he had been taught in his classes and we had a great time with all of them.
Eventually, we headed down the mountain, visiting the shrines and of course Buddha’s Foot Print. We spent the rest of day one visiting the Mekong and the night market, as well as just walking and enjoying the great city we were visiting.
Day two: We had a late breakfast then went to board the minivan for the hour trip out to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. The falls drop roughly 66 yards (60 meters) from the top of the mountain. The water then begins flowing through the limestone from pool to pool down the mountain to eventually meet the river below. The trek up to the falls begins with a trip through their bear enclosure which we did not like and so just quickly passed through it. The rest of the way up the waterfall, more than made up for it, though, with the absolutely awesome scenery. The total walk-up is probably around 1 mile or so from bottom to top. It is an easy walk for all ages, with many benches and places to stop and enjoy the smaller falls on the way to the top. We are using a new photography method for us, called HDR which yielded some amazing images for you to enjoy. After viewing the Falls, you can take an easy stroll back down the roadway, if you do not want to go back along the waterway.
Day three: We set the alarm for 5:30 am to view the Tak Bat Alms Ceremony. Most of the articles we read that were written about this, pointed out the negatives about how the tourists are ruining it, etc. That is somewhat true, but, the people from Laos, namely, the travel and booking companies, are the people responsible for this. They bus people in every morning to earn a fee. They bring them all into the center of town in one spot and it is a circus. We went down around the corner from the center’s main street toward the Mekong and there were no tourists — only us and the monks as well as the local people. We found it more touching, not that the local people get up every morning to share their food with the monks, but that as they did, the monks, in turn, handed most back out to the children along the way.
Mid-Range Foodie Stops
1. The Breakfast Cafe
On the center street of the old town area, north of the museum, you will find the Cafe Croissant d’Or & Guesthouse. This is one of the only restaurants that will be open after Tak Bat. They offer a great breakfast of scrambled eggs, real bacon, sausage (little hot dog), and 3 small pancakes (20 Kip) along with Lau coffee (8 Kips) for 28 Kip or $2.30. Going rate for this, in other restaurants, would be 35 Kip for breakfast plus 20 more for coffee or around $5 to $6. We had breakfast there every day.
2. The Garden Restaurant
We had been wanting a little taste of home for some time and we found it here. A pizza loaded with Mozzarella and topped with a spicy Lau Sausage. The very spicy sausage flavor mixed so well with the cheese and was well worth the 60,000 Kip or $7.50 price for a meal for two. You will find this on the center street about two blocks north of the museum on the left side of the street heading north.
3. The Nam Khong Cafe
The last Mekong River Cafe was the more expensive meal we had here, but once again far less than in the center streets of old town. Go down the street on the north side of the museum and is located on the corner where this street hits the street along the Mekong. Try the Red Curry or the Caesar Salad with chicken and bacon either for around $4. Be sure and try a glass of their fresh Lime Juice.
4. The Taxi Coffee and Pizza Stand
While not the cheapest coffee in LP, it is, in our opinion, the Best Coffee in LP. Located on the street running down the north side of the museum halfway between the center and the Mekong, it is the richest and thickest Lau Coffee we have found, plus you are given a glass of fresh Laos Tea for free. The total is 20 Kip or $2.50, but worth it at least once during your stay here.
This is the end of Part One of our Laos Adventure story. We will be heading for Phonsavan next. The main goal of our visit there: The Plain of Jars. Hope to have you back for part 2.