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A TRIP TO LAOS

Traditional villages in the middle of the jungle, huge rivers and mysterious caves
Travel itineraries, hiking, kayaking and sailing in Italy and around the world

LAOS:PHOTOS AND TRIP REPORT

Laos is a natural paradise rich of jungles, mountains and villages. People are poor but full of life and smiles; here we present a travel itinerary, with lots of photos and a trip report, visiting Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw.
(For information about prices, climate, transport, etc, visit the page dedicated to travels in Thailand and Laos).

Village near Vang Vieng, Laos
Cows are always in the middle of the road in Laos, being it a gravel road or a main highway

LAOS: PHOTOS AND TRIP REPORT

To enter Laos from southern Thailand without spending a lot in flight tickets, you can take a cheap AirAsia flight from Phuket to Udon Thani, a town in northern Thailand. From here, for about 5 Euros per person, you can go by minibus to the "Friendship Bridge" on the Mekong River, which is the border between Thailand and Laos. It takes about one hour. Upon completion of the paperwork (and payment of the visa) you can take a taxi to the center of Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Tuk tuk in Vientiane, near a market
Tuk tuk in Vientiane, near a market
We spent the night in the dirty and noisy Mixay Guesthouse, the worst hotel of our three-week trip. At least it was in the center of Vientiane, so in the evening we could walk to one of the nice restaurants of Vientiane and to the night market on the Mekong river; early in the morning, we tried to visit the "Morning Market", but we found it empty, perhaps because it was Sunday. Luckily, walking from Talat Sao towards the Mekong we found a lively and picturesque market mainly dedicated to meat and vegetables. There were no tourists and it was really picturesque.
Mercato di Vientiane, capitale del Laos
Un caratteristico e animato mercato di Vientiane, la capitale del Laos.
Restaurants and markets aside, Vientiane wasn't memorable, so at 10 AM we were already at the airport to pick up the rental car we had booked on the internet. Our travel itinerary in Laos was starting. We didn't find anyone at the Sixt Rent-a-car desk, so we asked two girls working at a toy store to give him a call. They were both very kind and insightful, as we communicated by gestures.
Finally we managed to get our automatic Toyota Vios and we drove towards Vang Vieng. The view wasn't memorable, but we can't forget that road with thousands of holes, we were zig-zagging, braking and accelerating. Moreover there were lots of trucks, chickens crossing the road, dogs and cows that quietly stood in the middle of the road. All in all, it was very fun to drive, like in a video game: each chicken I managed to avoid I scored 100 points, each hole I hit I was losing a life.
We arrived at Sengkeo guesthouse in Vang Vieng (well worth the 9 Euros for a double room with bathroom, one of the cheapest places along our travel itinerary), we walked acrosso town and then we explored some of the closest villages beyond the river. Here the views were awesome, with mountains that suddenly grew from the fields.
Village near Vang Vieng, Laos
Village near Vang Vieng.
The city was full of bars and restaurants; we had a drink on the river and we had dinner in a nice Korean restaurant. Years ago Vang Vieng was a favorite destination along the travel itinerary of North European and American boys who wanted to have cheap alcohol and drugs; today, however, it is frequented by Asian tourists (including Lao people) and lovers of nature and outdoor activities.
The next day we rented a quad in Vang Vieng, mostly because it could be fun, and we explored the villages, the countryside and the caves on the opposite bank of the river. It was a very interesting, funny and muddy morning.
By quad near Vang Vieng, Laos Village near Vang Vieng, Laos Cave near Vang Vieng, Laos
By quad near Vang Vieng, among cultivated fields, caves, villages and green mountains.
After 4 hours, when we returned the quad, we were very dirty. We had some pancakes (a sort of symbol of Vang Vieng: they are great with bananas, but also with chicken), and we continued the drive towards Luang Prabang. We found the road 13 from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang long and winding, but in much better conditions than the one between Vientiane and Vang Vieng. In addition, the views were fantastic. Along the way we stopped to take pictures of the scenery and the villages, or to browse the markets that sold the local products: mandarins, dry bread and crafts.
Banana pancake at Vang Vieng, Laos
Several stalls offer typical food: here the famous banana pancakes (or also with chicken) of Vang Vieng, which are almost a tourist attraction.
We arrived at 7 PM to our guesthouse in Luang Prabang, the most touristy city in Laos. Full of restaurants and with a huge and nice night market, we spent two nights there. During the day we visited the Kuang Si waterfall. We arrived there at 8 AM by car, so we were almost the first to enter, and we found the waterfalls deserted and fantastic.
Kuang Si waterfalls, near Luang Prabang, Laos Kuang Si waterfalls, near Luang Prabang, Laos
The amazing Kuang Si waterfalls, near Luang Prabang
We walked up and down along the waterfalls and in the woods; in the park there was also a rescue center for bears.
Bear in the park of Kuang Si waterfalls
Bear in the park of Kuang Si waterfalls
Then we returned to Luang Prabang for lunch and we visited the city following a typical tourist itinerary. The biggest mistake was having lunch at a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, which, of course, was differed from the others because it was owned by a European and was more expensive than those typically Lao. This mistake aside, Luang Prabang, located at the confluence of two rivers, full of colonial buildings and Buddhist temples, was beautiful.
Luang Prabang, Laos Luang Prabang, Laos
Beautiful Luang Prabang, situated where Mekong and Nam Ou rivers meet, is full of golden temples
It was a good idea to climb the hill in the city center, which offers beautiful views, especially at sunset.
View of Luang Prabang, Laos Sunset at Luang Prabang, Laos
From the hill in the center of Luang Prabang you can enjoy awesome views and colourful sunsets
While walking down we got lost in the alleys under the hill and we came upon a party; there were these Lao families drinking and dancing and eating. They offered us several drinks, especially a chubby girl who was pretty drunk. A bloke began to dance in front of my girlfriend, then his girlfriend came and took him away. When we left we were laughing. They had been very kind.
Monk in Luang Prabang, Laos
Even for the buddhist monks of Luang Prabang times change!! :)
In the evening we had dinner at the market stalls. It was cheap, tasty food. We met a Spanish guy who had been traveling for years, working a little bit here and there to go on. A fascinating life, a very difficult one. I wouldn't dare it, but if the alternative is being without money in Europe... well, it's much better to be without money in Laos (or wandering Asia).
The next day we drove up to Pak Ou, from where we took the boat to the Pak Ou Caves, full of Buddha statues and with panoramic view over the river Ou.
Pak Ou caves, near Luang Prabang, Laos Pak Ou caves, near Luang Prabang, Laos
Pak Ou caves, near Luang Prabang, with Buddha statues and panoramic view over the river
Near Pak Ou there was a nice village where they sold fabrics, clothes and other trinkets. Coming back, after the visit to the caves, along the dirt road to Pak Ou we met a "reserve" where tourists could ride elephants. We watched the show, which was very nice because they also swam in the river with the elephants; tourists got out soaking wet... very funny. However, we didn't join the party, for two reasons: first, there are some naturalistic concerns about these kinds of attractions; second, in Africa I had seen the elephants roam free in the bush, which was definitely more thrilling and memorable than this sort of circus.
Elephant near Pak Ou, not far from Luang Prabang, Laos
Elephant near Pak Ou, not far from Luang Prabang
We took the car and we headed towards the mountains of Nong Khiaw in a landscape more and more picturesque. We had some good and simple noodles in a a tavern for truckers and Lao travelers - on of those moments that stay forever in the hearts - and we arrived in the afternoon at the beautiful Nong Khiaw. This town is crossed by the Ou River that winds between majestic green mountains. An impressive bridge, very high on the river, is a great place to enjoy a fantastic view (or also to commit suicide, if you are a pessimist).
Nong Khiaw and the Ou river, that flows between the mountains of Laos Nong Khiaw and the Ou river, that flows between the mountains of Laos
Nong Khiaw and the Ou river, that flows between the mountains of Laos
We found a nice little guesthouse with a terrace overlooking the river; the cheapest room was 6 euros, but we took the luxury one, slightly more expensive... it was New Year's eve, we could splurge a little bit. Those traveling in the off season may probably bargain a price of a couple of Euros per night, and this with one of the most beautiful views you could wish for.
Fisherman on a boat on the river Ou, at Nong Khiaw
Fisherman on a boat on the river Ou, at Nong Khiaw
We had dinner in the restaurant of an Indian man who had been living in Laos for some time. It was a pleasant change from the "usual" food we had met along our travel itinerary. The following morning we had breakfast on our small terrace with tea and pancakes. Then we were able to take a boat trip to the traditional villages that looked out on the Ou river upstream of Nong Khiaw. In the villages we had a guide who was a passionate hunter. He also told us some interesting stuff, for example that electricity had arrived in the village only a year before, and that the bamboo houses could last only 10 years, and that for the Lao New Year they had a competition among boats of the different villages (how I would love to make one of the teams!!)
Nong Khiaw and the villages on the river Ou, in the mountains of Laos Nong Khiaw and the villages on the river Ou, in the mountains of Laos
In the river Ou you can also swim; the villages are very picturesque
After a walk through the fields and the forest to a waterfall, we returned to Nong Khiaw by kayak... an interesting experience.
Of that trip, apart from the beautiful scenery, I remember two special moments. The first one took place in the second village we visited. The boys were carrying uphill a long wooden canoe. We were there, so we decided to help them. The canoe was surprisingly heavy, but we succeeded and when we could finally leave the canoe a smiling woman offered me some lao whiskey. The atmosphere in the village was beautiful.
Lao Whiskey in a village near Nong Khiaw
Drinking Lao Whiskey in a village near Nong Khiaw after having helped the boys carry a heavy wooden canoe
The second special moment happened while kayaking on the river, on the way back: in my long career as an amateur canoeist, in fact, never I had paddled near water buffalos, cows and pigs.
By kayak to Nong Khiaw, near water buffalos along river Ou
By kayak to Nong Khiaw, near water buffalos, cows and pigs along river Ou
After this exciting trip, we were back to Nong Khiaw to enjoy the town. It was December the 31st. We had a very good and simple dinner in another Indian restaurant and then we visited the village festival. It was funny, very Lao, almost too much for us, especially when a child began singing loudly into the microphone. The poor boy was a terrible singer and the noise he produced was terrible!! So we left the party. Around town there were girls dancing to the sound of commercial pop music imitating the singers that they had probably seen on TV.
Nong Khiaw and the villages on Ou river, in the mountains of Laos Nong Khiaw and the villages on Ou river, in the mountains of Laos
The people of Nong Khiaw and the villages on Ou river are full of smiles. Most are young and there are lots of children playing in the roads
The 1st of January 2016 our travel itinerary forced us to leave Nong Khiaw and head towards Luang Prabang, where we visited the traditional villages on the opposite bank of the Mekong. It was a very interesting tour. In the early afternoon we had lunch at Luang Prabang in a bar overlooking the Mekong, in a panoramic position.
Mekong river at Luang Prabang Buddhist monks on a wooden bridge at Luang Prabang
Over the Ou and Mekong rivers, at Luang Prabang, you can have wonderful views and enjoy Lao life, including some buddhist monks walking along a wooden bridge
At about 3 PM we started our drive towards Vang Vieng, using the road number 4 (and not 13) and then a new mountain road that connects road 4 to Kasi (which was in good conditions, but it looked also very prone to landslides). This way, we saved almost two hours, which then we partially lost because Vang Vieng was invaded by Asian tourists and it was almost impossible to find a room. We ended up in a quite terrible place, but still it was a fun experience. They also cooked us some food: while the mother was cooking the noodles in broth, her 12.year-old son was trying to extort crazy amounts of money for that dinner.
The next day we visited some more of the countryside of Vang Vieng, this time by bicycle, which was nice, in the early morning.
By bike near Vang Vieng, Laos By bike near Vang Vieng, Laos Fields near Vang Vieng, Laos View over the countryside of Vang Vieng, Laos
While cycling around Vang Vieng countryside you can enjoy wonderful views
Then we drove to Vientiane, but instead of following the boring road 13, at one point we turned towards the beautiful Nam Ngum artificial lake, on road 10. Here the countryside, in addition to the lake itself (we enjoyed a beautiful view over its islands) were really nice. It was impressive how many Lao tourists on the lake, as much as in Vang Vieng.
Nam Ngum artificial lake, central Laos
Nam Ngum artificial lake, central Laos
As we got to Vientiane at 5PM (instead of 7PM as we had supposed), we decided to hand over the rented car a little bit earlier and take the last bus of the day (at 6 pm) going across the border to Thailand. We arrived at the bus station at 5:40 and the last bus to Udon Thani was full, but there was room on the bus to Nong Khai, a Thai town overlooking the Mekong, just after the border with Laos.
So this bus trip ended our travel itinerary in Laos, and the holiday continued in central Thailand. Laos is rustic, wild, relaxing. Maybe it doesn't boast many "wow" attractions, and while driving on the winding mountain roads you see mainly jungle and villages, the scenery is almost repetitive. On the other hand, the purity of the place (while it lasts) and the smiles of the people in the villages make us want to go back to Laos soon, and travel and drive around, and go more and more off the beaten path.
Temple in a countryside village of Laos
Temple in a countryside village of Laos
(Pssst, the trip went on to Bangkok and central Thailand).

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