STOP 8 & 9 | Day 21 to 22 |
To get to our next stop in Laos we chose a mini-van, as the other option, a “VIP” bus, takes a few hours longer given the windy roads that need to be navigated. At this point we were not surprised when 15 passengers were expected to cram into the vehicle – we even have our system down pat where J deals with the bags and A scrambles to grab “decent” seats (i.e. being stuck in the 4-person row in the back usually isn’t great as the bags are jammed under that seat too making it a tight-no-leg-room fit and you definitely don’t want to be the last person without a seat as that generally means you get the middle “seat” in the front!).
The 3 1/2 hour drive from Vientiane to Vang Vieng showcased the beauty of Laos, with stunning limestone mountains and a very lush green countryside. Vang Vieng has definitely changed from its old backpacking party spot days (the government has closed many of the riverside bars in 2012 due to the rising number of deaths), these days it caters to a growing number of Korean and Chinese tourists. After grabbing lunch and coffees at Cafe eheh we rented a scooter and headed off to explore the area. Given we were only there until the next morning we didn’t have time for an organized tour and most of the tuk tuk drivers were asking for quite a bit to take us around for just the afternoon. The scooter was a good option and we managed to find a rental place which didn’t require us to leave with them our passport (we read that this could be an issue and places end up charging you more once you return the scooter for “damages” holding your passport hostage). We stopped at Phu Kham Cave and Blue Lagoon, which unfortunately was a pretty murky brown given that day’s rainfall. This was also quite the touristy stop as they have a tree which you can jump off of and rope swing. The real beauty was in the ride there and back. The cuisine in Vang Vieng was pretty mediocre, it mostly consisted of restaurants serving the same Western options (burgers and pizzas) and generic Asian stir-frys, we unfortunately did not find any great Lao food.
After speaking with various tour agencies we found out that there is two mini-van options from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, either through a registered or unregistered company. After our various mini-van/bus experiences we figured either would probably offer the same experience and the unregistered option was slightly cheaper, so we went with that. The next day we got picked up by a mini-van and headed off to Luang Prabang. However, just outside the city we pulled off on a country road where we were told “Out, out, change”. Slightly confused we got off and saw another van there. Of course our van being only half full had met another half full van to consolidate the passengers! Then finally with 14 passengers crammed into the mini-van we headed to Luang Prabang. The picturesque mountain scenery and windy roads reminded us of our trek up to Monteverde in Costa Rica – at some points the fog had rolled in and visibility minimal which surprisingly didn’t faze our driver (as he kept speeding along the windy embankment). During our break half way through the trip we were surprised when another mini-van had pulled up and it’s passengers started to board our mini-van. Soon we realize that each driver makes the trip half way, they trade passengers and heads back home.
Luang Prabang, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, had charm from being an ancient royal capital, its French colonial influences and over 33 Wats (temples), it has a very relaxing vibe. We found a few good eats from a bowl of noodle soup for $1.50USD from Xieng Thong Noodle, mango sticky rice at Bamboo Tree (dinner here was on the more expensive side but delicious!) to chicken baguettes from the stalls that line the street. As J was starting to feel a bit under the weather (perhaps from swimming in the not-so Blue Lagoon) we took it easy and didn’t do any day trips. We did manage to climb up Mount Phou Si which offered you panoramic views of Luang Prabang at the top. From the Mekong River on one side to the Nam Khan on the other, you can enjoy views of the town to the surrounding countryside and also admire Wat Chom Si, a Buddhist temple at the top.
Overall, it was a great few days in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang and with the benefit of hindsight we would have stayed much longer. Norther Laos is a part of the world we will undoubtedly return to.