Entering Laos through the hard way

Trip Start Sep 03, 2006
Trip End Jul 21, 2007

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Desapointed by Laos

We had heard a lot of good things about Laos from other travellers and the country was still supposed to be the rough gem of Southeast Asia. Well, it is not anymore, it's a well trodden country popular with backpackers. At least the now classical route of Huax Xai-Luang Prabang-Vientiane. The positive effect is that the road have been repaired and the bus rides are much more comfortable than they used to be. Our biggest disapointment though, was not Laos popularity, but the Lao themselves. After three month in southeast Asia, we were expecting much more warmth and much less carelessness. The consequence was that we cut our stay by a week, spending only two weeks instead of three. Nonetheless, Laos has very nice landscapes and is worth a visit for a holiday.

Crossing the Thai-Lao border at Huay Xai

We entered Laos by the border town of Huay Xai, separated from Thailand by the Mekong. It was the very last day of our visa, and we were half expecting to be refused the entry unless we bought another visa. We didn't plan to arrive so late in Laos, but the difficulties we had to get out of Myanmar had delayed us of one week.

It was actually our last day to enter Laos, and swiftly crossed the river without any problems. Changing our Thai Baths and a few Euros in Laos Kips, and we found ourselves millionaires!

The pace of life in Huay Xai is very slow and the town is really quiet. No touts. No shop owner helling you in the distance to "just have a look" in his shop. On the contrary, most of the time we had to look for the shop keeper in order to buy something. We even had the case of one of them watching TV in the back room and reluctantly leaving her program because we were insisting to buy something!

Forgettable slow boat down the Mekong

From Huay Xai, the only way to reach our next destination, Luang Prabang, was to hop on a slow boat for 2 days with a mandatory stop in the village of Pak Beng for the night.
This leg certainly gave us a negative first impression of Lao people:
There were enough people to fill up two boats but the local authorities insisted to pack us up on only one incomfortable boat until some tourists protested and decided to occupy another one. Then they agreed to use two boats. Of course we left about an hour and a half late for no appearent reason, this would have been fine if we had not been told to show up for ID and ticket control 2 hours before the departure (which was frankly useless as there was no queue at all!

The day passes slowly and nicely and we arrived in Pak Beng where an army of porters jump into the boat and grab any bag they could and then ask for a ridiculous amount of money to carry it up the steep 500m to the village. Overcharging choiceless tourists seems to be Pak Beng's moto. It's an unpleasant feeling to be walking money, and no longer a person. Anyway, the best is still to come. The following morning they decided there would be only one boat leaving. There was no reason to pack us on a single boat as there were plenty around! Whether the authorities do that to save on charges remains a mistery. Some angry tourists refused to get on the boat, and we'd learn later that they would be offered to charter their own boat as soon as we left (for a little extra). Later we met other travellers that went thru the same scenario on different days, confirming that this wasn't an isolated incident but rather a daily routine! This was a real shame and ruined what could have been otherwise a really cool boat trip. If you come to Laos, disregard that the Lonely Planet make this trip a highlight, we advise you to avoid it if you can. Fortunately we met four French guys (from Narbonne qui plus est!) on the boat with whom we had a good time, it was not all bad!
We were happy to arrive in Luang Prabang where things got back to normal for us...

Luang Prabang: temples and tourists

Probably Laos most famous site, Luang Prabang is a charming place. The city which received a UNESCO world heritage label, is home to dozens of temples and colonial buildings. After 5 days of travelling we were quite happy to settle down for a few days. First thing was to find a room, and this is not as easy as it sounds as apparently there is less rooms than travellers in Luang Prabang!
As soon as our slow boat landed, it was room hunt for the 200 or so backpackers it contained. Some people got 20 nos before finding a crappy room or sleeping on the entrance floor of a guest house willing to let them do so! Given the number of guesthouses under construction this problem shouldn't last long. We were lucky enough to find a room straight away as we headed in the opposite direction of the crowd and thus beated many. The Lao seem to have kept much more "Frenchness" than Cambodia: cafes and baguette sellers can be found at every street corner. On the day of our arrival, we indulged ourselves with a meal at a French restaurant ("Couleur Cafe"). The wine, the steak with blue cheese sauce was a real treat after all these months of rice!

Kuang Si falls

We took our time in Luang Prabang, strolling in the streets, shopping at the night market, visiting the museum and many temples, and working on the blog of course! One of the highlights of our stay were the Kuang Si falls, 30 Km out of town. Dotted with turquoise blue pools and tall waterfalls, the site doesn't disapoint. The most daring tourists took their chance on the swing to the amusement of locals. We could also have visited a famous cave by the Mekong, full of Buddhas of all size and shapes, but unfortunately, we contracted an allergy to Buddhas statues in Myanmar linked to overexposure and were not sure to take it!

We were in February, during the dry season, the waters of the Mekong were low, so villagers living on the river banks were using the fertile soil to grow vegetables, something quite common in Southeast Asia. Across the river, it is actually still village life, nothing to do with the sophistication of Luang Prabang.

After almost a week, and having done our duty of updating the blog, tasting Lao coffee (beurkk!), sampling baguette sandwich (yummy!), trying Lao massage (yeahh!), it was time for us to move on to Vang Vieng, 5 hours south of Luang Prabang. These two cities are actually not that far away the way the crows fly ("a vol d'oiseau" pour nos lecteurs francophones), but unlike Cambodia which is as flat as Kate Moss' chest, Laos landscape is more like Pamela Anderson's...
Slideshow Report as Spam
Where I stayed
Xayana Guesthouse
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