Luang Prabang & Vientiane

All along the Mekong.

The other day, in Vientiane I saw a travel poster for Laos and the slogan read “Simply Laos”, which captures the natural beauty of the place perfectly. Not as sophisticated as Thailand it still has the charm of a country not yet overrun by tourism. The natural beauty of Lao is enchanting and the Mekong River, the lifeline of the country is where you can best feel the pulse of this unassuming country. Along the Mekong are several cities worth visiting. My first stop after the Slow Boat was Luang Prabang and then a short flight later I was in the capital, Vientiane.

Laos was colonized by the French and their influence is still seen in the cuisine, architecture and many Lao speak some French. There are many French tourists here as well. Once a royal kingdom, Lao was a French colony from 1893 to to the mid 1950’s, gaining full independence after a Japanese occupation in WWII. After Independence the country was divided with the US supporting of the Royal Lao Army and the USSR backing the Pathet Lao independence supporters who were aligned with the Vietnamese and the Khmer against the French. Laos has been left with the terrible legacy of having been bombed with 2,093,100 tones during the so called “secret war” by the Americans. There are museums that display the unexplored ordinance that littered the country and there are people who make a living making crafts from the metal as a way of using the terrible events to remind everyone of the horrors that resulted. In the end the communist backed faction won and in 1975 Laos People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed. A social regime, they sent up to 50000 royalist to labour camps.

Laos was closed to the world until 1990 when it became possible to visit Laos and see the traditional, rural lifestyles that have changed little over this tumultuous history.

Luang Prabang

Whoever coined “Simply Lao” must have had Luang Prabang in mind. It is a quiet, unassuming city with a slow pace. The old city is host to lots of foreigners from all parts of the globe. The easiest way to get about is in a long-benched Tuk-Tuk which can dart in and our of traffic and around potholes with greater ease than a car. You can also rent bikes and scooters in Luang Prabang and this would likely be the safest of cities in which to do that. You can see the French influence throughout Luang Prabang in the architecture and you can certainly enjoy a croissant and cafe au lait at a vast number of little coffee bars and restaurants.

A lovely place to wander you can climb Phousi a hill in the center of town to visit the golden Buddhist stupa and from there get a good view of the surrounding area.

The signage below indicates the main sites to be seen in Luang Prabang and although certainly possible to see them all in one day, there is no rush and spreading them out over the course of a few days mixed with a few cafe au laits is a wanderers delight. The Do’s and Dont’s are a reminder to foreigners that our Lao hosts do not share our same customs and I thought it was a gentle and friendly reminder about some of the unacceptable behaviours. Could have used this on the boat with the Tourist Thugs I encountered.

Lunag Prabang boasts some fine food experiences and one in particular, stands out…. A Lao style barbecue at your table, you first load your tray from a long buffet filled with meats/seafood, followed by vegetables, herbs and spices. The sticky rice comes at the end as does the cashier who you pay before returning to your table to “cook” your selections. The individual charcoal braziers on each table are red hot and chunks of port fat are provided to grease the piping hot metal inverted colander on which you spread your food. So delicious and very popular, the place was packed. Other Lao dishes I tried were “Larp”, a minced meat salad and Tam Mak Hung, a very spicy salad made from shredded green papaya, garlic, chillies, lime juice and fish paste. Noodle soups are also very popular and eaten for breakfast. It is served with lettuce, mint, coriander leaves and bean sprouts on the side. The best deserts, in spite of the French influence are the fresh fruits; guava, lychee, rambutan, mangosteen and pomelo. Mmmm good as is or whipped into a smoothy.

The Royal Palace Museum is another place to visit but was closed while I was there, all except the grounds which were interesting in themselves.

An evening stroll along the Mekong reveals the place to be for an evening of Lao food and people watching. Tons of restaurants line the banks and invite passerby’s to tarry over drinks and dinner and while being mesmerized by the Mekong.

Such a safe place, Luang Prabang is nice even at night and the Main Street is transformed into a very busy and long night market full of crafts and souvenirs. There are some beautiful fabrics and so many other things to buy and so little suitcase space to carry them home.

There are many day trips you can do from Luang Prabang and I chose to visit the multi-level Kuang Si waterfalls. Before you make the trek up to the falls you pass through a bear sanctuary, which was completely unexpected. There were dozens of bears enclosed in large spaces where they are free to wander, play and live out their days. Signage tells that there are no longer safe wilds for the bears in Laos, mainly thanks to poachers and deforestation. The poachers captured and killed the bears particularly for use in Chinese medicines. So sad, they can never be released.

The Kuang Si falls are beautiful shades of blue and the pools of water that form at their feet are great for swimming. A little on the cold side but being a west coast Canadian, I quickly adapted and enjoyed the refreshing waters. A little disconcerting are those self same little fish found in pedicure tanks that eat your dry dead skin. If you keep your feet moving though they are kept at bay.

The trail that leads up and along the falls is through a beautiful tropical forest and definitely is enjoyable on its own. The plant, flower and tree species are well marked and you can read about the wild life prevalent in the area as well. And in English, thank you to our Lao hosts.

The bride above is not intentionally included with the flora and fauna but is there simply because she was there, along the trail, posed, and anyone with camera in hand would be hard put to resist the intrusion.

Vientiane – The Capitol of Laos

My regret about Luang Prabang is that I spent only two nights there, saving my last four Laos nights for Vientiane. I wish that I had reversed that decision and enjoyed more of “Simply Laos”. Even though I read and did some research I fear that I thought there was more to do in Vientiane and that it too would reflect the “simply Laos” sentiment. There are some famous Pagodas in Vientiane but I visited the ruins of one that have an historical connection to the Khmer from Cambodia and resemble those that I saw in Ankhor Wat. Wandering the streets I marvelled at the electrical installations and wondered how a problem could ever be solved in the event of having to unravel the trail of tangled wires.

There are French architectural influences including a street compared to the Champs Élysées and an arch commemorating Independence. In front of the Arch is a remarkable sculpture made from blue and white porcelain cylinders. Until you are up close it’s hard to see how that is possible. At the opposite end of the street to the Arch is the Presidential Palace and in between the Morning Market is a great place to wander and see what’s for sale. The Lunar New Year was about to happen and signs of the upcoming celebration were everywhere.

I made good use of my four days in Vientiane, catching up on laundry, correspondence and the last night I had dinner with some “Slow Boat” friends. We strolled along the riverfront, visited the a night market with plenty of things for sale and many food stalls. There were also a number of rides and games for the whole family. We had decided on a South Indian Restaurant listed as the number one choice in Trip Advisor. We were not disappointed at the Flavours & Spices.

Next stop Vietnam!

Slow Boat from Chaingkhong to Luang Prabang on the Mekong River

The Slow, Slow, Slow Boat to Luang Probang

Traveling from Thailand into Laos can be done by land or air but one of the popular ways to go is to take the 3 day “Slow Boat” trip from Chiangkhong Thailand. If you buy your ticket in Chaing Mai be sure and understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into. My friends advice to find a travel agent with good English went unheeded and I bought my package from an agency, even though the woman was not able to answer my questions but I liked the price.


Everything started well enough, we left on time in a passenger van, full but not cramped, and headed north through Chaing Rai to our first overnight stop in Chaingkhong. One of the selling points of this tour for me was the chance to stop in Chaing Rai at the White Temple, a spectacular place, part frosty icing, part lacy doily, part Disney, part Super Heroes and all curlicues. I loved it but it was thronging with people and hard to get a photo without people in it but somehow I managed. 

We arrived in Chiangkhong at the end of the day to the ‘guesthouse’ included in the package and it was disgusting. My first room had a cement slab bed with a mattress thrown on top that was equally as hard as the slab. Covered in a red polyester cigarette burned sheet it was finished with a lumpy pillow that looked like it had been dragged down the road.

Phased but determined to be a good sport, (I learned in Central America that you can rest easier if you throw down your beach wraps or sarongs and cover everything that will touch your skin). I was fighting the urge to flee until I opened the bathroom door, one peek and I launched back up two very steep flights of stairs to demand another room….which was worse and had ten bunks in it.

Upon fleeing the scene I ran into this lovely woman who had also freaked at the sight of the accommodation and she led to a hotel a few doors down where she and her friends had found a room. She even negotiated a lower price for me. Sheets, towels, comfy bed and a happy me for 28 cad.

Day 2

After a good nights sleep, the other deserters and myself returned to the the hotel and the poor folks who had touched it out in the dive. There were 20 of us traveling on to Laos to board the “slow boat”.

The guesthouse owner was in charge of getting us all transported across the Laos border and through the visitor visa process. Clearly, the guesthouse owner had his share of experience in getting tourists through the process which I am sure is like herding cats, but still no excuse for such crap accommodation.

First thing after breakfast, you are told to see him to exchange Thai Baht for USD to pay for the Lao visa because with this currency you pay the lowest price for the visa. Other currencies have steeper prices with the Canadian dollar being the highest. No explanation available. The owner checks your passport expiry date and ensures that you have a photo for the Lao officials to process your visa. When all is checked and ready you are given a lunch bag and handed 25 baht for your bus fare across the Friendship Bridge into Laos and then finally at long last you are given the nod to board a van to the boarder.

At the border you are stamped out of Thailand, loaded onto a bus, paying the 25 baht bus fair and arriving on the Laos side of the Friendship Bridge with crisp American bills (otherwise unacceptable) enough for the visa and one extra for “overtime” because the Lao officials have to work on Saturday (2$ if it’s a Sunday). Two forms, three wickets, the Lao visa safely glued inside your passport and a turnstile later, you board yet another van that takes you about 20 minutes up the river to the launching area. (Not going to call it a dock).

The wooden “Slow Boats” are about 50 meters long and 7 meters wide with loosely assigned seating in repurposed car seats, so of course, those that arrived first picked the ”best seats” and argued with the latecomers that it was meant to be first come first served. Our 20 person group was combined with a larger group so the boat we were on was quite full and we were the last to load. The local Lao sat at the front of the boat surrounded by their huge parcels and packages. Slow Boats have long been their mode of transport and now they find themselves surrounded by foreigners, who taking up most of the seats settled in and we were away. The Slow Boats are open sided but between the poles that hold up the roof, there are rolled up curtains for the rainy season.

The Captain sits in the very front of the boat and has to keep track of the great many meters of boat behind him. A huge diesel engine lurks deep inside the open bilge near the stern and makes its presence felt, clanking away, sputtering, coughing and spewing fumes as it pushes the Slow Boat along. Thin guard rails around the engine pit give a nod to safety and behind the engine area is a small back deck. The staff quarters on the boat appear to be the limited, noisy, oily space available around the engine pit. The bilge pumps tell the story of the hull as they spew a constant broad stream of bilge water shooting out the sides of the boat back into the river whence it came.

I met a whole gang of really fun, nice, easygoing people on the Slow Boat who shared stories, food and laughs. It was a good thing because it was a long day and in spite of its beauty the scenery became a little monotonous. Along the rocky banks of restless Mekong we watched Lao people go about their lives, farming, bathing, barbecuing, fishing, washing clothes, some even panning for gold and others swimming in the calmer waters. All of these scenes repeating themselves as we passed the small villages on the hillsides.

The Lao Mekong acts as an important supply and transportation route before it passes through Cambodia and empties into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam Nam. There are strong eddies and occasional rapids that the captain pilots around, sometimes squeezing between the huge rocks that stand menacingly in the boats path. The river widens and narrows and the navigational hazards mean than the Captain must know the river well to keep the “Slow Boats” afloat.

Sadly there were a group of tourist thugs (I’m not naming their country of origin because they could have been from anywhere) whose idea of a vacation involves commandeering a whole section of the boat, drinking copious amounts of beer (on day 2 they brought on 5 bottles of whiskey) and were as loud, obnoxious and profane as possible.

Just a few hours short of our stopover destination, Pak Beng, two of them decided to swing out from the open sides of the boat and up on to the roof. Only, one of them didn’t make it and he was man overboard, bouncing around in the eddies as the captain turned the very long, very slow boat around in a narrow rocky part of the river to retrieve him from a passing fisherman who had, luckily for him, rescued him before we could get back.

Most passengers were alarmed and on their feet watching the scene unfold but his drunken buddies thought it was hilarious but the poor Lao woman who worked the canteen was the one to alert the captain and she was in hysterics. Apparently Slow Boat owners/staff are held responsible if anything happens to the tourists and she could easily have landed in jail. Ugly! 

After some boat wide excitement, we carried on to Pak Beng, watching the sunset behind the mountains.

On our second day on the Mekong, we boarded a different boat. Not as cramped with old car seats it also had some nice wooden benches and although it seemed smaller than the first boat it also seemed more open and there was a nice breeze blowing in the open sides of the boat.

The canteen sold beer, water, pop, potato chips and noodles so that no one starved to death but most people wisely stocked up in Pak Beng where the French influence was evident in the number of bakeries selling brie and baguettes. 

Eight hours a day is a long time to spend onboard, sitting in the old car seats or on the hard wooden benches and frequent strolls up and down the aisle are necessary to eleviate butt pain. But my “gang” on the boat was fantastic, funny and non-complaining. It’s so great when you find a group that is compatible. The other passengers were a mix of retired types and young backpackers, who for the most part were pleasant to be around. I spoke to many interesting people and am constantly amazed at how well the Europeans in particular speak English. As we neared Luang Prabang we passed the famous Buddha Caves and watched a beautiful sunset.

I would say that if you want to take the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, you should be prepared for some adversity. But, on the whole I had many magical moments where I was very glad to be there, watching the the people, the other boats, the mountain villages, the livestock, the banana groves, and in contrast the new “brought to you by The Government of the Peoples Republic of China” bridges and roads, and the giant grey green rocks standing guard over all the activity. All gliding by on the “Slow Boat” to Luang Prabang on the mighty Mekong River.

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