23 hours on a bus.
“Get the bus from Hanoi to Laos” they said. “It’s easy” they said. Clearly “they” have never spent
We said a sad goodbye to our very favourite hostel, Vietnam Backpackers – Downtown after an incredible 6 weeks in Vietnam. After the first 2 weeks there chewed me up and spat me out I didn’t think I had it in me to carry on in Vietnam but I am SO glad I did. The man from the bus company came to our hostel to pick us up to take us to the bus station and he threw my bag on the back of his bike in the pouring rain and off he went – we just had to trot behind him in the hope that we didn’t lose him or my bag.
We boarded our bus and picked our “beds” – bottom level and right at the back. We figured it was our safest bet! We were wrong – again. Our first stop, about an hour into the journey, was a small service station in the middle of no where. Whilst we were in the toilets which I can only describe as looking like something from a concentration camp, approximately 2,000 pairs of trousers were thrown in through the back window of the bus. Floor to ceiling trousers. Every slightest tap on the brakes and we would be showered in trousers! It was funny at first but quickly got tiresome – as did the whole bus journey. Multiple stop offs with a driver who insisted on waking us up each time and kicking us off the bus. Despite the fact that it was a sleeper bus he was very much of the opinion that “if I don’t sleep, you don’t sleep.” At around 5am I was woken up to be told we were at the border, which doesn’t open until 7am and we have to get off the bus and wait. Excellent. With absolutely no guidance whatsoever and in the middle of nowhere, we just had to wing it. When they opened the “border” – literally a barrier attached to a sandbag, we walked across to the first office to get our Vietnam Exit stamp. The cheek of it was that you had to pay $1 just for the stamp, and if you refused to pay it, which Ceri tried, they just smugly hand back your passport without said exit stamp. Dollars paid and exit stamps received, we started walking in the only direction available and I can honestly say it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. If there were a way to depict “no mans land” this would be it – it was like something out of an apocalypse film. The winding mountain road was crumbling away, dilapidated old buildings lay at the side of the road, grand but seemingly abandoned and no sign of anyone.
We walked for about 20 minutes before crossing a small road bridge and finally being able to see the next part of our border crossing – the Laos Immigration office. Feeling thankful that we had survived the apocalyptic walk we headed in and handed over our passports. Despite the sign on the wall detailing the “fixed” prices for Visa on entry, we were charged extra because it was a weekend, and no one likes to work on a weekend right? After about another 30 minute wait, we were handed back our passports with our shiny new visa and it was time to get back on the hellish bus for the second half of our journey. Yep – still only half way! 🤦🏽♀️ The second half was actually relatively painless and after multiple naps and 2 whole packets of Oreos, we arrived in Vientiane. We shared a taxi to our hostel which we had not booked so just had to hope for the best. We bargained the guy down for a private room and ended up with 3 of us in a double room as it was all they had left. I’m hindsight I wish we had gone else where as the rest of the evening felt just like being back at work! The couple in the room next to us had a huge domestic which we had to intervene on, made all the more difficult by the fact that he was German, she was Thai and both of them were deaf. It was such a sad situation and try as we might to keep her safe, she ended up going back to the man who just a few hours ago had had his hands round her throat. Her husband of just 2 weeks. Needless to say I didn’t sleep that night! Always the shit-magnet! 🙋🏽
Starting afresh the next morning, Ceri and I hired bikes of the pedal variety to take a little trip round the city and get some much needed exercise after so long on the bus. Our first stop was Pha That Luang – believe to date from the 3rd Century and one of the biggest & most important Buddhist stupas in Laos.
It was so beautiful & peaceful to wander around – I could have spent all day there. That’s if I hadn’t spent all my money on releasing birds from cages. Apparently it’s meant to be good luck to release the birds and watch them fly away. This is a very popular tradition in Asia and you see it at a lot of temples, so I’m told. We ended up feeling so bad for these tiny sparrow like birds crammed into bamboo cages, we spent the equivalent of about £20 to release them all. We bought 10 cages, each with between 5 & 10 birds crushed into them. We set them all free – all except one which was so poorly already that he didn’t make it – despite our best efforts. I’m aware that it’s all a huge scam and all the birds will likely be recaptured and be back on sale from their tiny cages tomorrow, but for that evening at least, they could be free!
After a delicious pad Thai lunch we headed to our next destination – Sisaket Temple. Famous in Vientiane for housing over 6800 buddhas, Wat Sisaket dates back to around 1818. This place has an even more special place in my heart as I was here when I found out that I had a brand new nephew! 💙 We wandered around the grounds of the temple and I bought a bracelet from a monk for my brand new nephew Lucas.
Templed out for the day we cycled back to our hostel in the hope of a better night than last night. It was here that we had our first introduction to Dark Beer Laos – the only beer I have ever actually enjoyed drinking – even since travelling. We also had our first introduction to a real life God (and his 2 friends). We drank in the hostel with Zeus (yes his name suits…) Danny & Ryan and it got very messy very quickly. We were just getting ready to leave and I went to get my flip flops off the shoe rack only to find some thieving b**tard had helped themselves! Less than impressed but in true British style, I left a very passive aggressive note on the shoe rack demanding the return of my beloved Havaiannas! Before we knew it we had got a tuktuk and I had my first experience of a Laos night club – and what an experience it was. All was going well until my “techno techno” arm went a little too far and I sliced my arm open on a broken bottle that someone had so kindly left on the table. Patched up by the barman and another drink in hand, I was right as rain again! Never before in my life have I been as accident-prone as I am on this trip – and little did I know it was only set to get worse! Standby for that story. For reasons which remain unknown, we decided to walk back to our hostel, at 3am – arguing about which way was the right way to go! Somehow we made it back in one piece!
The following morning was a struggle, only made worse by the fact that we had to get a bus to Vang Vieng that afternoon! Bags packed again and flip flops miraculously located about 10 minutes before we were due to leave, we boarded our bus to Vang Vieng! The bus journey was beyond terrifying! Overtaking 4 petrol tankers in one go, on a bend, whilst all 4 drivers of said petrol tankers casually smoked out of the drivers windows. Safety first and all that! After about 3 hours and 827474937374 near misses along the way we arrived in the stunningly beautiful Vang Vieng, surrounded by lush green rice paddies and beautiful mountains. We checked into our hostel, Real Backpackers 2, and headed out for dinner. Not content on a quiet evening, we returned to our hostel to more drama! We walked into our room to find all my stuff thrown all over the room, my bags dumped on the floor and food scattered everywhere. The person who was in my bed before me had failed to check out and also failed to read the note that management had left on his bed informing him that he had to either check out altogether or move rooms. He had also clearly done this to all my stuff. I was livid but in his absence had no choice but to just inform reception and wait. I went back up to the room to find the ever so charming (note the sarcasm) Pablo sitting on my bed. When I confronted him about his total and utter disrespect for my belongings and hostel etiquette in general, I was met with a tirade of abuse from him – lovely. Thankfully, just as he was squaring up to me (see – shit magnet!!) the manager stepped in and unceremoniously booted him out of the room! I was smug that I had won that tiny victory but also still slightly terrified by Pablo – and rightly so. I took a couple of sleeping tablets and went to bed thinking nothing more of it. At around 3am, the door to our room swung open and a vaguely remember waking up, hearing Ceri say my name and seeing a figure standing in the doorway – that figure was Pablo. We both thought that be had come back to murder us in our sleep. Turns out Pablo had been arrested that night and the police were escorting him to his hostel to collect his passport and he had gone to the wrong room. The police apologised and left with him! Ha! Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke! Hope you enjoyed your night in the cell Pablo!! Douchebag! 😒
The following day we spent wandering around town, getting our bearings, eating and generally being lazy again! We went out for dinner and a few drinks, and somehow ended up staggering home at 3am with pad Thai. I blame the Canadians….again…and the Russian! Oh – and the free whiskey. All the free whiskey. In Vang Vieng, happy hour means free whiskey. They line them up along the bar and you choose coke or sprite. When one happy hour runs out, you can move to the next bar for their happy hour. Absolute carnage. Especially since the whiskey is probably not even whiskey – you can buy a litre in the shop for 10,000kip which is less than a quid.
One bars tag line is “Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single.” That pretty much sums up Vang Vieng. That and this photo of pad Thai….
Not content with just one blinding night out in Vang Vieng, the following day we took on the infamous Laos Tubing. The 27 bars along the river were shut down a few years ago due to the alarming average of 2 backpackers a week that were dying during this particular “bar crawl.” Luckily (or unluckily) for us, a few weeks before we arrive they opened up a few new bars, now totalling 7 along the Nam Song River. All still shockingly hungover from the night before, we headed out around mid day to sign our lives away for a day of tubing. We had a beer each for hair of the dog purposes only, then bought a bottle of 95p Laos “whiskey” to take with us. We were each given a number on our hands in permanent marker in case we were dragged out of the river is goodness only knows what state, handed a rubber ring and quite literally sent off down the river. It didn’t take long for us to arrive at our first bar. About 30 seconds in fact! Someone stands on the riverbank with a bottle of water attached to a rope which they throw out to you so you can pull yourself in! Once safely ashore again we were plied with more free whiskey and commenced the most intense game of flip cup I’ve ever seen! The first bars was one of the best! Ace music, games and we were lucky to have a great bunch of people!
We floated down the river, stopping at various different bars for about 6 hours! The jello syringe shots seemed to tip me over the edge and before I knew it I was stomping around in the mud wearing a Vietnamese rice paper hat, someone else’s size 12 flip flops and then spectacularly stacked it up some steps, snapping back all of my fingers and being in an exceptional amount of pain. With no other choice but to carry on because I had to tube to the pick up point, I got a bag of ice and another drink and carried on. I even managed a pretty shoddy game of one handed netball!
After a solid 7 hours of tubing and drinking, Mother Nature decided enough was enough as we got caught in a huge electrical storm. Just what you want when you are floating down a river in a giant rubber ring! In our haste to get out of the river and not lose each other, we got stuck in a bridge. It could only happen to us. Holding onto whatever limbs we could, we managed to manoeuvre ourselves around the bridge, laughing hysterically all the while, yet still being terrified we would die in the storm. When we got out of the river we were met by a very stern looking taxi driver. It was like pretending to your Dad the you’re totally sober when you clearly are battered. Although we were meant to be picked up, the taxi driver refused to take anyone back to the office until we had all paid. We all tried to stick together in saying that we shouldn’t have to pay but yet again, we lost. The driver just sat patiently and waited until we paid, which he clearly knew we would. Tubes returned, we staggered home, showered and climbed into bed. There was absolutely no way I could face going out that night. It was 8:30pm. I slept until 9am the next morning!!
Suitably refreshed and surprisingly not hungover, we decided on adventure day, even though my hand felt very much broken. I couldn’t hire a bike as it was my right hand so I wouldn’t be able to ride. Instead, we hired one between us and Ceri was my chauffeur for the day. We drove around the town and headed out through the countryside to the Blue Lagoon.
The drive was a little (OK – a LOT) treacherous – unpaved roads, crumbling bridges, zebra mosquitos and no real idea where we were actually going!! We survived the day with only one (very) near miss on the way home but Ceri totally bossed the bike!
We ventured back for our final night in Vang Vieng and to pack up for our early morning bus to Luang Prabang in the morning. Our bus was as eventful as ever – excessive speeding, mortifying overtakes, actual craters in the road causing the driver to have to stop, get out, brick up the wheels so we don’t roll off the mountain and try to assess whether or not the minibus would/could make it through. After about 10 minutes of looking into said crater with a serious lack of confidence, our driver got back in the van and proceeded to floor it right through the middle of it. Not even so much as an attempt to drive round it! How we didn’t die I’ll never know. We carried on up through the mountains and came to a very steep, very blind bend in the road where a few cars were stopped and people we standing around. We were forced to sit and watch a small pick up truck attempt to manoeuvre around the particular bend in the road – very unsuccessfully. Each time we thought he had it, the truck would start to slide backwards & sideways. Any way but up. At this point, Ceri and I were ready to walk the rest of the way. Our travelling motto kicked in hard – “No one dies today!” Only we couldn’t get out of the van. Our driver again put his foot down and gunned it. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. Feeling more like the worlds unsafest rollercoaster, we somehow made it up the mountain pass and survived the rest of our trip to Luang Prabang. We were staying at the beautiful Sa Sa Lao Hostel – just a little outside of town and right on the river. It was one of the prettiest hostels I’ve ever stayed in.
We spent our first evening wandering around the town, scouting through the extensive night market and had one of THE worst Mexican dinners I’ve ever had the misfortune of eating. The restaurant owner, a middle aged Aussie woman, promised us it was the only Mexican in Laos and was the best. She was also absolutely hammered – could barely stand up or string a sentence together, let alone look after her 2 poor children who were running riot in the restaurant, drawing all over the floors and walls with sharpie markers. I spent most of the next day in bed feeling ropey as anything – probably a combination of the last few days in Vang Vieng catching up with me and the dreadful Mexican. I did however make it out of the hostel for a sunset river cruise along the Mekong – totally worth getting out of bed for. Sipping mojitos as the sun goes down was bliss.
The following day we set out on an adventure of our own in an attempt to find a temple in a cave we had read about somewhere online. We walked down the the river and ended up getting on the vehicle ferry which the locals though was beyond hilarious! Stupid foreigners! But for about 40p, we thought why not! Once on the other side of the river we walked for an hour or so through a beautiful village, stopped at a temple along the way and saw families preparing for what looked like it was going to be a big party later. We eventually found some monks at a beautiful temple complex in the trees and they vaguely pointed us in some direction “over there” as if we were completely bonkers. We definitely felt like it at this point. As we carried on walking “over there” we found a very steep flight of stone steps with a sign written in Laos and an arrow pointing up – next to something we didn’t want to see – 1.5km. Up. It was 35degrees already and we had less than zero desire to walk 1.5km up steps to see a cave temple that we weren’t even sure if it existed or not. Skipping the steps we carried on walking and got to a total dead end. We had no choice – back to the dreaded steps it was. We started climbing the #bigsteps only to discover that there was about 40 of them which took us directly to the cave entrance. No 1.5km climb for us today – winning! As we stepped down into the cave we realised we may still have made a big mistake. Absolute pitch blackness. The lights on our phones did absolutely bugger all! We powered through and carried on down into the cave, and then I got the fear. The fear that we would get lost, or the monks would close and lock the gate, or Gollum was gonna come out of a hole in the rock. 20 minutes in the blackness was enough for me and we beat a hasty retreat! On the way back we met some gorgeous local kids who we hung out with for a while and gave them pens. All they wanted from us was pens and to play with Snapchat filters! 💙
Our next adventure day is one I’ve really been looking forward to since I started planning this trip. Kuang Si Falls, a vivid turquoise, multi-tier waterfall tucked away in the rainforest 30km from Luang Prabang and also home to one of Laos’ biggest Moon Bear Rescue Centres. You walk through the sanctuary which is home to around 43 bears which have been rescued from the bear bile industry and illegal pet trade. The sanctuary is small and gets no income from the entry fee to the waterfall so they do the best they can with donations received! When I finally managed to peel myself away from watching the bears we walked up to the base of the falls. Several pools have formed at the bottom with the most beautiful turquoise green water, full of tiny “pedicure spa” fish. You can swim in a handful of the pools but we chose to keep walking to the main falls and they did not disappoint. I’ve seen some pretty spectacular waterfalls on this trip but Kuang Si really is something else. Surrounded by lush rainforest but sadly a few too many tourists to make it really perfect.We hiked up the side of the waterfall to the very top where they have a viewing platform. Despite our best efforts we were unable to find the mysterious “secret pool” we had read about. Some say it’s there, some say it doesn’t exist! One of the guides we tracked down gave us a very cheeky smile when we asked him but then told us it didn’t exist! I’m still unconvinced. Our climb back down was somewhat interesting as we had ventured very much off the beaten track but miraculously I made it without tripping, falling or otherwise injuring myself. I took a quick dip in one of the pools at the bottom of the falls but got way too freaked out by all the fish trying to eat me! Not cool! Once back safely in town we went out for a few drinks and dinner with some people we had met on our hostel. Luang Prabang pretty much shuts down altogether at 11pm to preserve the tradition of the early morning procession of monks to collect their food. That is except for the bowling alley on the outskirts of town. We got a tuktuk out there, got our lane and played 2 exceptionally competitive games of bowling. It would have only been one but I won the first game and it made the boys almost cry so they demanded a rematch. I have in and came 3rd in the second game but it was still worth it to see their devastation at being beaten by a girl first time round!
The following morning we got up super early to go and see the monks during their “alms giving ceremony.” Although this happens everywhere, Luang Prabang is especially famous for this due to the number of monks involved – over 200 leave their temples each morning to collect their offerings of food for their one meal a day! It’s a beautiful sight to see and one of the most sacred in all of Laos and yet you still see people out with their bloody selfie sticks disturbing their meditation! 😤 Our final afternoon we spent visiting the UXO Laos Museum which aims to raise awareness around UXO – Unexploded Ordinance – all over Laos as a result of the war. The stats in the picture give you an idea of the sheer scale of this problem and the devestation it causes to families throughout the country. When we left Luang Prabang we decided to take the “long way round” to get to our next adventure. We boarded the slow boat in Luang Prabang which would take us 2 days along the Mekong River to Houay Xai, a small town on the Thai/Laos Border. The boat journey was beautiful – apart from my little accident. Yes – another one. We were sat at a table with 2 Canadian guys and both Ceri & I had “window” seats. A few hours into the journey I was desperate for a wee but the guy next to me was asleep. Having a little too much faith in my own abilities, I put one hand behind him on the back of the seat and one hand on the table in an attempt to step over his lap! As I stepped, he moved and his headphone cable caught my leg. What happened next was all over in a split second but played out in total slow motion. As my foot got caught, I panicked, accidentally stamped in his crotch, then realising what I had down tried to support my own weight on my hands again, thus tipping myself straight over him and falling face first on the floor in front of a boat load of people. Mortifying! Thankfully he found it funny and I hadn’t actually hurt him. Also thankfully I fell into the boat rather than out! 🤦🏽♀️
The boat journey continued with no further mishaps and we arrived at our half way point and overnight stay at Pak Beng. We stayed in a small guesthouse and had a delicious Indian meal! The following morning we left for another full day on the boat to Houay Xai – home of The Gibbon Experience and our final Laotian adventure.
We went to the office to drop off our bags and sign our lives away (quite literally) before doing a spot of last minute shopping for more bug spray and leech socks. We left town at around 8am and drove for about 2 hours out to the rainforest and the start of our big adventure. We trekked through rice fields and into the beautiful rainforest to our first stop in the village where we picked up our harnesses. We were shown the map of where our adventure would take us then we set off again to our treehouse. Yes. For the next 3 days and 2 nights I would be living in a tree house and ziplining through the canopy of a rainforest.
Our guides, Vuong and Yia were amazing. Their knowledge of the rainforest and all its inhabitants was second to none. They could tell us what plants could help with various different ailments, knew how to get rid of leeches, pointed out termite superhighways and lots of other cool rainforest tricks. We ziplined around for a few hours to get used to the harnesses then made our way to our tree house late afternoon.
Our tree house was spectacular. The view even more so. We ziplined into the tree house which is built on 3 levels, 150m up a tree. Within about 20 minutes of arriving the gibbons made their first appearance. I cried.
We sat for hours just watching and listening, totally amazed that we were lucky enough to see the gibbons in their wild habitat. We are incredible food, had a few beers and played games with our guides. I was sleeping in the “penthouse” all to myself which was incredible, until the a massive storm hit and I got absolutely soaked in my bed. Less than ideal but I still didn’t actually really care! I was living in a treehouse – like, a childhood dream of mine!! We spent the next 2 days ziplining and trekking around the rainforest along 15km of wire and even further on foot.
After an incredible whistle stop 3 weeks in this beautiful country we were sad to leave, as always. Laos had way more to offer than I ever expected but I was also excited to move onto my next stop, Thailand!