28.11.2012 - 12.12.2012 28 °C
Arriving in Laos, we were completely taken aback by how beautiful the place was, the friendliness and languid, laid-back attitude of the people and the infectious slow pace of life here. At first glance its hard to believe that Laos is one of the poorest countries on earth.
After landing in Vientienne, we quickly made our way up to Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a small town famous for tubing, but we were told a few months before we arrived that it had been banned due to such an unsurprisingly high number of deaths. Because tubing was the main tourist attraction here, when we arrived the place was like a ghost town and the guest houses, restaurants and the few bars that were open were mostly empty. However, because of our preconception of the place being solely a party town, we were so shocked at how incredibly beautiful it was. Huge karst formations stand on either side of the wide river covered in dense vegetation, and the whole place is filled with sprawling rice paddies, caves, villages and butterflies the size of your hand! So we were glad we'd decided to stop off here despite tubing no longer being on offer.
The next day we went on a full day kayaking and caving trip, which started off with us strapping on head torches, jumping into a rubber ring and pulling ourselves through a very small cave entrance at the side of the river. As small spaces and the dark are not exactly my favorite things, I did begin to wonder why I'd paid to do this! It turns out rubber rings are not the easiest way to navigate through a long, dark, narrow cave, but we eventually got the hang of it! It was definitely a surreal experience! Once we reached the end we let go of the ropes and let the current take us back out to the river.
After a quick swim we went to a small village for lunch, where the term fresh free range chicken was taken to whole new levels... one minute it was running around the village, next it was on a BBQ and served up on a banana leaf! After lunch we went to another cave and then started the 15km kayaking trip down the river. The kayak wasn't the easiest thing to control when we hit the rapids, and we did somehow manage to end up in a tree. Which was fine until Shaun realized that a 2ft snake had fallen into his lap. I've never seen him move so quick! After we'd stopped screaming, and the guide had stopped laughing, he told us that seeing a snake on a journey is apparently good luck, which may have had some truth in it because we were one of the only boats that didn't capsize when we hit the rapids again later on! We met another really nice couple on the trip and spent the majority of the rest of our time in Vang Vieng with them. We spent that night in a bar that was giving out free 'whiskey' shots, but as all the bars now had a curfew we decided to spend the next night sat by the river with a bottle of rum instead.
We did try what was left of the tubing whilst we were there, but somehow I didn't think floating down the river in a rubber ring with a couple of beers was quite the same without all the bars and rope swings lining the river! I think the laid back Laos lifestyle was starting to rub off on us, as we also spent a great deal of our time relaxing by the pool, eating pancakes and drinking watermelon shakes! So with the risk of Vang Vieng turning into a repeat of our extended stay Pai, we decidied to make our way up to Luang Probang.
As Laos was part of a French colany untill the 50's, it has a massive French influence, and Luang Probang felt especially european. Whilst we were there we visited the most beautiful waterfalls we've ever seen, the water was so blue and with the sun coming through the trees it looked like something out of a fairytale. We spent the day jumping off waterfalls and rope swings, and getting eaten by tiny cleaner fish! (Why people pay for that treatment is beyond me!). We also went to a sun bear sanctuary, a hill top temple with amazing views over the city (the greenest city I've ever seen with more palm trees than buildings!), did a sunset yoga session on the river, spent a whole days budget on presents from the night markets, and spent the rest of our time in French cafes eating cakes and coissants, and lying by the river on futons drinking homemade lemonade.
Following the most relaxing week and a half of our trip so far, we had the most horrendous 2 day journey down to Siphandon (4000 islands) in the far south of Laos. This consisted of a tuk-tuk, a sleeper bus, a 12 hour stop over in Vientienne, 2 mini buses, another sleeper bus, another mini bus, a coach and a boat. It turns out that the laid-back attitutde here comes hand in hand with a complete lack of organization! But we did eventually arrive on Don Det, and the journey was definately worth it.
We met another couple, Jenny and Ben on the coach and got 2 wooden riverside huts next to each other on the sunset side of the island. We spent the day recovering from the journey sat in the hammoks drinking whiskey and coke, and the next day we went on another kayaking trip around the islands. The islands are beautiful, and as we kayaked around them we saw huge sleepy water buffalo bathing in the mekong, fisherman in little wooden boats and little kids running out to the river side shouting 'Sabaidee!'. After visiting one island to see a waterfall, we kayaked through rapids towards Cambodian waters. Jenny and Ben somehow managed to capsize their kayak in the narrowest stretch of water they could find, causing a 5 kayak pile up that we narrowly escaped, but we eventually reached the big expanse of water between Laos and Cambodia where we saw irrawaddy dolphins just ahead of us! They're a really rare fresh water dolphin, and there are only about 100 left in the mekong so we were so lucky to see them! We stopped at an empty beach for lunch and a swim, and they continued to kayak. It started to get harder now as there was no current to help us along, and it wasn't long before Shaun got bored and started splashing me... relentlessy. When this wasn't getting the desired reaction he started rocking the kayak instead. I told him I wouldn't help paddle untill he stopped and appologised, which he responed to by splashing me... so he ended up paddiling on his own to the next island whilst I sat there getting splashed. We finally reached the next island to see the largest waterfall in South East Aisia, and then had to kayak back to Don Det! By this point I would have been happy if I never saw a kayak again, but then the sun was setting and there were dozens of little kids playing in the river, pulling us along, climbing onto our kayaks and jumping off, so it ended up being a really nice end to the day.
The next day we rented bikes and went to explore the neighbouring island Don Khon. When we were cycling past a school, two young kids started waving us over, and when we stopped they jumped on our bikes to hitch a ride! It was baking hot, and quite a long way before they pointed to their house and jumped off, so we guessed that they must hitch a lift home from school most days! After that we found a deserted beach, and a little wooden riverside hut where we bought some fresh fish before cycling back. That night we went out with a group of people that we'd met on our balcony, one of which was a German girl who became more and more vocal about disliking English people the more she drank! But other than that we had a great last night in Laos!
We really wish that we'd had more time to see Laos as we've had an amazing time here, but now it's time for us to move onto Cambodia!