When it comes to Laos, I have only two places in mind to visit – Luang Prabang (World Heritage Site) and Vang Vieng (tubing town). There are other tourist sites – Vientiane (capital city), Pakse, (Si Phan Don) 1,000 Islands and Phonsavan (Plain of Jars) in Laos but since that I have limited days, I have settled for these 2 main choices.
There were ups and downs in my Laos trip. Generally known as the lay-back country or backward environment where almost anyone is expected to enjoy a life away from city buzz and hectic schedules, a trip in Laos demands patience and tolerance. And bargaining power. Here, I would just state the highlights of my trip.
1. Sunset Hill, Vang Vieng.
Somewhere 4 km away from Vang Vieng town, across the Nam Song river, onto the path that leads to Blue Lagoon, nested a hidden gem (not listed in Tripadvisor or almost other online guides). Heading from the town, look out for the signboard that states ‘Pha Ngeun’. On this signboard too, the word ‘mountain view’ and ‘school’ are listed. Head in the unfamiliar path and shortly, a hut/booth appears. Pay 10,000 kip to the friendly teenage gatekeeper who speaks no English and you should be heading your way up the hill.
To the villagers here, this is their Pha Ngeun Mountain. Don’t let the word mountain scares you. It was really a high hill, that offered great view from the top. The signboard also says 500m. I have learned my lesson to take anything shared with me with a pinch of salt. The journey up was definitely more than 500m, demanding but still doable. I hiked up the hill, wearing sandals. Some slopes were tiring but the reward was magnificent.
There were two shelters built on the hill. The first shelter gave a reasonable view of the paddy fields in the valley, trapped between mountains. Catch a short break and then continue.
Around 10 minutes later, with another nice view along the way, I reached the bottom of rocky peaks. The path up these peaks was easy to be found. I realised later that I was stepping on broken pinnacles, to hike up to the top of the pinnacle peaks. At the top of the peak, I saw heaven.
There was a shelter built at the top, offering a majestic view of the whole green, luscious paddy field, surrounded by proud mountains. Tiny houses could be seen scattered along the red earth road that I had used earlier, heading to Blue Lagoon.
The hike got me huffing and puffing but the view at the top kept me breathless. I was alone at the top and yet, I could feel the world was with me. I was alone up there, enjoying this wonderful, beautiful view, and it was all mine, for those hours I spent there on my own.
It was cooling. The breeze was welcoming me. The joy was pure.
This site is good for sunrise/sunset view, if only one could negotiate the path when the light is not favourable. It took me 40 minutes to hike down. The whole journey was so worth the time and the money. It did not matter to me if I had hiked up a hill or a mountain. What did matter to me was that I hiked up and found my little heaven.
2. Kuangsi Waterfall, Luang Prabang
Kuangsi waterfall is situated at a distance of 40 minutes car ride from Luang Prabang. There is much hype over this waterfall that I have to witness it for myself. Instead of taking the shared or private tuk tuk from the town area, I booked for a shared van tour ride to Kuangsi waterfall at the price of 50,000 kip. The entrance fee to Kuangsi cost me another 20,000 kip.
Unlike the other waterfall sites I had been to recently, Kuangsi waterfalls are felt along the river where the river flows down. There are 4 stages of the waterfall along the river in the park. Stage 4 is the highlight where the water drops from a high cliff.
Cross the popular bridge where many photos were snapped, I found a hiking trail leading up to the hilltop for a view of the surrounding. Again, this path was demanding as the slopes were steep. Trees and small streams greeted me at the top, offering me one view of a nearby valley.
Tourists found their laughter in Stage 1. They swam and they dove. They hardly knew one another but they shared their joys that afternoon.
3. Tak Bat, Luang Prabang (and other areas in Laos)
Tak Bat is the morning alms tradition, uphold by the Buddhist monks. Early in the morning, after their chanting and meditation, these monks would head out of their monastery to seek for alms, from grateful and supportive villagers. To the villagers, monks uphold the practice as advised by the Buddha. They are also seek in times of emotional difficulties and for help. In gratitude, villagers offer support to the monks who have chosen to leave behind the life of unnecessary possession.
To be a monk is not to escape from responsibilities. It is a commitment in seeking for self-actualisation.
Rows of monks can be seen in towns in Laos. To see them in the act of Tak Bat, I had to wake up as early as 5.30am and try my luck at different streets in hope to catch glimpses of the orange robes. There was something sincere and downright humble in seeing villagers still upholding this tradition, keeping it alive after years of modernisation.
These village ladies and men were believers. They knelt to show their respects. They offered to show their support. They rejoiced because they knew it was a well-done act.
And these monks were a field of merit to Buddhists all around. Homage to the blessed ones.
4. Tubing on Nam Song river, Vang Vieng
Tubing was the main activity in Vang Vieng. It was the haven for party-ers who wanted nothing but crazy blasting music, beer and weed as they went tubing down the river. It had stopped now. 4 bars were still standing as I tubed my way down the quiet, wide river.
Tubing activity in Vang Vieng starts at 9am and ends at 6pm. The shop stops taking new customers at 4pm. It costs 55000 kip, plus 60000 kip for deposit. The deposit will be returned if the tube is given back before 6pm. Free life jacket is provided. A free tuk tuk ride is offered to the start point for the tubing experience. The whole journey of tubing is 1.5 hours during rainy season and 4 hours during non-rainy season.
My advice? Bring along your sandals. You need them to paddle. Hehehehe.
The whole journey was relaxing although the current was strong. There were a few bumpy areas as the water was bouncy. One or two areas where the water swirled. Mountain views were seen although I was not really adjusted to the idea of floating yet on the strong current. So, I did not really get to enjoy the view much.
Kayaks would pass by and happy Koreans would greet me. There were more kayaks than tubes on the river. As I did not stop at any bar, I was floating alone. Nam Song was brownish and wide. The current was crazily strong and I had no control how I was rotated around, on my tube.
Another advice – try to stay close to the left hand side of the river. No one told me. I ‘over-floated’ my destination and no one was there to help my tube to stop.
Bicycle cost me around 10,000 kip. I was constantly reminded to lock up my bicycle. Apparently theft was an issue in Luang Prabang. There were enough stories about stolen motorcycles in Luang Prabang that made me hesitated on renting one. Moreover, motorcycle rental was expensive. One could easily cost me 140,000 kip, and that was without petrol.
So, I packed my lunch, cycled under the cloudy sky of Luang Prabang, snaked my way around the river and was charmed by the old-looking houses facing the river. Stopped by the river to eat my meal and just let the day rolled by.
In Vang Vieng, instead of signing up for a tour package to Blue Lagoon, I decided to cycle from the town to the Blue Lagoon. Guaranteed, going uphill at times was not really easy, plus the mud was not that appealing, the ride was worth it as it allowed me to stop several times to snap photos of the paddy fields and mountains.
6. Enjoy the sunset at Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang
On the day I arrived in Luang Prabang, I was determined to catch a good sunset. There had to be one, in my whole Laos trip. It was impossible to catch a good sunset due to the evening rain.
It cost 20,000 kip to enter Mount Phousi. There were 355 steps all the way to the top. Some stopped in the middle, to catch a breather. It was doable, although it did take a little determination and patience.
At the top, I joined the crowd, waiting for the sunset that was not so promising, during this rain season.
7. Slow-paced Life
Coming to Laos, one is expected to leave the concrete city world behind and just lay back. Enjoy the greens. Enjoy the water. Listen to children’s laughter. Look at how the villagers juggle between their culture and the world the tourists are introducing to them. Like it or not, these people have a lifestyle that we no longer have the luxury to enjoy easily in our city homes. They envy us for our gadgets. We envy them for their simplicity.
Laos, to me, was an intriguing country. This trip did satisfy my curiosity on what the country was about. I came and saw heaven, from the top of Sunset Hill, in Vang Vieng. I came and saw wonders in the cold, strong current Kuangsi Waterfall in Luang Prabang. The people had been introduced to the business world for tourists and they are learning how to milk from curious visitors. I would safely say that I am done with Laos, from the soul-less Vientiane to the expensive and village-like Vang Vieng to old, but progressing Luang Prabang.
Charming, but for how long still?