On 2nd May 2018 we got up at 5am in Chiang Rai, Thailand to start our long journey across the Thai/Laos border to Luang Prabang in Laos. Our time in Thailand had come to an end and we’s had a great time but we were looking forward to seeing another country. We’d heard great things about Laos so we were excited to get there! We had planned to get the first bus to the border which left at 6am from the station but it was raining heavily so we couldn’t stand outside and get a tuk tuk and with it being very early there were no taxi’s through sites like Grab or Uber so we had to go back to bed for half an hour and resign ourselves to the 7am bus instead. It wasn’t just annoying that we had got up an hour earlier for nothing but it would also mean that we would miss the direct bus to Luang Prabang which meant we weren’t 100% sure how long our journey would end up taking us that day.
The most common way to get into Laos from Thailand is by going on a slow boat for two days up the Mekong River. You still start the journey the same as we did with a bus to the border but will then go to the harbour instead of the bus station like we did. Going by bus isn’t nearly as common and we were the only two westerners on that bus, everyone else was a local! We chose the bus for a number of reasons but mainly it all came down to time and money. Our way cost us a lot less than the boat would have and we arrived the same day we left Thailand (just) instead of late the following day.
The bus to the Thai border cost us 65 baht (£1.50) and runs throughout the day every hour. It dropped us off near to the border where we then got a tuk tuk which was 50 baht each (£1.15) to the border crossing and then once we crossed through the Thai border we had to buy a bus ticket for 20 baht (45p) to the Laos border. We had heard getting over the Laos border could take ages but it didn’t take too long for us and we didn’t face any of the issues other bloggers and TripAdvisor reviews seemed to have faced which we were thankful for. The longest part was actually waiting for the bus between the two borders to go and it was while we waited for this bus that we knew we had definitely missed the 10am direct bus to Luang Prabang. We were able to get a visa on arrival and just had to hand over a passport photo and US$35 each. We also got the rest of our Thai baht changed into Laos kip once we got over the border into Laos and ended up with just over 3 million kip (£260) – it was going to be strange going back to the big numbers again but at least now after Bali and Vietnam we were more used to it!
Once we were over the Laos border we got a ride to the bus station for 15,000 kip each (£1.30) which we were really happy with as we had heard it could be a range of prices all more expensive than what we got. Once at the bus station we had to get onto the next bus to Luang Prabang. The next direct bus wasn’t until 4pm but Niall, during his great, extensive research into getting us to Luang Prabang, knew that the bus to Vientiane which left at 11:30am would stop at Luang Prabang on the way. After having communication issues with the man behind the ticket desk he got his wife to come over who spoke exceptional English and we were able to buy two tickets on the Vientiane bus to Luang Prabang for 120,000 kip each (£10.60). The bus was a sleeper bus but very different to the ones we had been on in Vietnam. The bus had two bunk bed rows which had a padded mat on like you’d use when doing gymnastics at school. They then gave you pillows and blankets and off we went. It actually wasn’t that bad and we managed the journey fine with relatively no hiccups (the bus did nearly leave without me one time when I went to buy us some food but between a local who was sitting in the seat/bed opposite us and Niall, I got back on the bus safely)!It was actually really lovely travelling by bus through Laos as we got to drive through lush, green jungle and over rolling hills and high into the mountains. Laos is beautiful. Straight away you can see how untouched it is compared to its neighbour Thailand and even with the clouds and odd rain shower, everything seemed to stay so bright and green. We passed small communities that were clustered on the side of the road (we think there is just one main road that winds its way through the length of Laos) and they live in houses made of wood with straw roofs. The houses are all raised onto stilts which I think is for when the rainy season hits and everything just seemed to move at a much slower pace.
We eventually arrived in Luang Prabang at midnight and had to pay 60,000 kip (£5.30) to get from the bus stop to our hostel which was 7km away. We had a feeling we were being ripped off but aside from walking we had no other option and just wanted to get to our hostel and go to bed. It was quarter to one in the morning by the time we were in our beds. The bus had taken 12.5 hours and it had been a 20 hour day with us being up since 5am but we were happy to have made it and the journey ended up being a lot easier than we had expected so we can’t really complain. We had booked to stay at Downtown Backpackers which was in a good location and did a good free breakfast which included juice, fruit and a range of breakfasts so I got a pancake and Niall got scrambled egg with sausage, ham and bread for breakfast every morning which sorted us out until late into the day.Our day started with lovely weather: sunny, blue skies dotted with clouds and a nice breeze. We decided to spend our first day here exploring the city and taking it slow as we weren’t sure how tired we’d be after our full day of travelling. We headed down to the Mekong River which is the lifeblood of many countries throughout South East Asia such as Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The river was lined with trees and greenery and, like the rest of the city, was very calm. We walked along the river and made sure to stop often to enjoy the Mekong in all its glory. After hearing so much about it and being in many countries that has the Mekong River running through it, it was good to finally see it for ourselves.Next we headed into a park which houses the Royal Palace National Museum. We didn’t pay to go into the museum as we hadn’t read very good reviews about the inside but the buildings that make up the museum and the park itself were really nice. It was also 30,000 kip each (£2.60) which is a big reason why we didn’t bother – for perspective 30,000 kip would buy us 3 sandwiches or an evening meal for the two of us. One of the palace buildings was an enormous grand pagoda that had a lot of gold detailing inside. When we first went here the inside was closed so we returned later on as it was near to our hostel to get a closer look. The palace was built in 1904 during the French colonial era and was the house of the royal family until the monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975. The Royal Family were taken to ‘re-education camps’ and the palace was converted into a national museum instead.After a rain shower that had us stuck back in our hostel for an hour we headed back out and managed to catch another spell of sunshine. For the rest of the day we dealt with passing showers but it wasn’t a huge issue as the times in between the rain were glorious sunshine. Luang Prabang as a town is very pretty. The streets are full of old French style buildings and you’ll be forever spotting pagodas, monks in bright orange robes or flowering trees so it’s hard not to fall for the place.We spent the rest of the day trying to see as many temples as we could. There are 34 UNESCO protected temples in Luang Prabang and they’re all still used and often lived in by monks today. We saw a lot of monks in Luang Prabang as it’s often the only way that children from poor families and villages are able to get an education and Luang Prabang has such a high proportion of temples, it makes sense that it’s the country’s religious hub. It was nice seeing the temples being used and I don’t think it’ll ever get old for me seeing monks walking around.
This site used to house an enormous wooden temple that is estimated to have taken 4000 trees to build. This was pillaged and destroyed in 1887 and the temple that is now here is a reconstruction made of brick instead so not quite the same. We were more impressed with the stupa which is called That Pathum or Stupa of the Great Lotus. It’s also a recreation, rebuilt in the late 1920s but is very big and grand even with it being made entirely of stone and not decorated like the stupas we had seen in Thailand.
This temple has a bronze Buddha that’s 6 meters high and is said to date back to the 1370s.
Wat Sene Souk Haram
This temple is also called Wat Sen and was built in 1718 using 100,000 stones from the Mekong River. The name translates to mean “Temple of a 100,000 Treasures” and was restored in 1957. We really liked it here.
Wat Xieng Thong
This is the main temple in Luang Prabang and is an important temple throughout Laos. The name translates to mean “Temple of the Golden City” and it’s a collection of 20 temples, shrines and other structures in one walled complex. There are also steps that lead down to the Mekong from the temple and its said that this used to be the entrance for the important people such as dignitaries or heirs to the thrown to enter the city from. My favourite temple was enormous and housed loads of statues of the Buddha as well as a giant funeral chariot of a King called Sisavangvong who died in 1959.After sheltering from a rain shower in the entrance to Wat Xieng Thong, we made a break for the hostel when it seemed like the rain was lessening. It seemed we got back just in time through as the next few hours had some seriously heavy rainfall that had us stuck indoors! Luckily we had seen what we wanted to see that day and had got to enjoy some sunny spells so we relaxed and then headed out that evening when the rain had stopped. We went to a place called Atsalin for tea which is somewhere I’d found on TripAdvisor and it did good food, big portions and all for 27,000kip (£2.40) for the two of us so it was cheap! After our tea we went to a bar that’s famous in the backpacker scene in Luang Prabang called Utopia. This was a chilled out bar with fairy lights, cushions on the floor and large bottles of beer for 15,000kip (£1.35), what’s not to like? It was a good end to a great first day in Laos and we had already fallen in love with the place.We woke up to another big breakfast and then got a shuttle bus from our hostel to Kuang Si Waterfall. We had wanted to go early to maximise our chance of having good weather and it be a bit quieter but it was very expensive to get there with your own transport at around 160,000 kip (£14) as fuel is expensive in Laos so motorbike and tuk tuks were out of our price range! Our hostel offered a shuttle service for 35,000 kip each (£3) so a much better price for us but it didn’t leave until 11am so not as early as we would have liked and it made us a little worried we would catch some of the afternoon showers like Luang Prabang had the day before.
As soon as we arrived at the falls the rain started which wasn’t ideal and involved a few dips under shelter while the worst of the heavy downpours occurred. Luckily, just like the day before, the break in the showers gave us beautiful blue skies and so we were able to get to see the waterfalls in the dazzling sunshine. The falls cost 20,000 kip (£1.80) to get in and that lasted the full day so you can stay as long as you wanted if your transport allowed.
The waterfall has a natural swimming pool at the bottom and then moved up a hill to a few small, shallow waterfalls that are bright turquoise in the sunshine. This all leads to the main, three tiered waterfall which is 60m high and really impressive in the blue skies surrounded by jungle on either side of it. The waterfalls were all beautiful and I’m so glad we got some sun as it really brightened up the turquoise of the water and I don’t think it would have been quite as nice under grey skies.
Whilst the weather was nice we took the stairs that are on either side of the waterfall to some viewpoints at the top. There were a lot of trees at the top as well as more pools of water and small bridges made of a couple of planks of wood had been built to allow you to walk from one side to the other. The views showed you lots of jungle that went on for miles and reminded you again just how green and wild Laos is. It was cool to go up to the top but it’s not something I’d want to do if it had been raining a lot more as it was a bit slippy on the way down!
We spent the next hour swimming in the lower of the pools that was framed with trees and a small waterfall falling over the rocks. It was really nice and picturesque but absolutely freezing!! You got used to it after a while but it also meant you couldn’t stay in there for very long and because of the rain showers it wasn’t as hot as you’d want for being in such cold water. There were also little fish in the water that liked to nibble at you while you were in there (like the fish you get in those spa fish feet tanks at home)! We’ve been in water with fish like this before but these were particularly aggressive and if you had any open bites – which is highly likely considering you’re in South East Asia – they would target them and it would hurt! I went into the water twice and Niall joined me the second time but we didn’t stay in the water for a long time either time due to the fish and the water temperature. I’m still glad we went in though.
At the Kuang Si Waterfall there is also a Bear Rescue Centre which is ran by a charitable organisation called Free the Bears. Free the Bears was set up in 1995 by an Australian called Mary Hutton and the charity has a few rescue centres in South East Asia such as in Cambodia and Indonesia. In Laos they’re protecting the Moon Bear (Asiatic black bear) that is is native to Laos but hunted illegally for their bile which is used in places such as China and Vietnam as medicine. The bears are captured in the jungles and taken to bear bile farms where they’re placed in small cages (pictured belowed from the centre) with a catheter stuck into their gall bladder so that the bile can be regularly and easily extracted. There are around 25 bears at the rescue centre and we saw around five of them when they were getting fed giant coconuts as we headed to our shuttle to leave the falls. It was incredible to see the bears rip open the coconut skin to make a hole where they could lick up the coconut milk. When we buy coconut, huge machetes are used to do the same job the bear did which shows how strong their claws are! As well as rescuing the bears from camps they also take in bears that poachers have who have been caught by the authorities had as well as carry out programmes to sweep jungles for traps and snares. It seems like they have a huge job on their hands and it’s extra sad that the bears they rescue can never be returned to the wild so the wild bear population in Laos will continue to drop.
We got picked up at around 2pm which had given us enough time at the falls and after getting a sandwich we ended up spending the rest of the day in the hostel as there was yet another heavy downpour that afternoon. Once the rain had stopped that evening we went and met Charlotte and Alex who we had spent Holi Festival with in India. They had made their way through India, Sri Lanka and Thailand and we had ended up catching up with one another in Luang Prabang. It was nice to hear about everything they had gotten up to and Utopia is the perfect place to chill and catch up. One of the best bits of travelling is the people you meet and it’s always particularly nice when you can meet up again later on in your trips.
Our final day in Luang Prabang started early at 5am as we went out to observe the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony that happens every morning in Luang Prabang but is a Buddhist custom that happens throughout South East Asia on varying scales of formality and size. Each morning, just after sunrise, monks walk down the streets in lines carrying metal bowls and receive offerings often in the form of sticky rice from the locals. This tradition has been present since Buddhism was introduced to Laos and is deeply routed in the culture and daily routine of the people of Luang Prabang. The ceremony should be an incredibly peaceful and spiritual affair that would be amazing to watch from a distance as a bystander. This is what we aimed to do and it was a shame that this wasn’t entirely possible due to the daily event being tailored now for tourists. Along the main road in the city, small stools have been set up along the path ready for tourists to fill them and join in on the alms ceremony. I think if you’re Buddhist then joining the ceremony would be completely fine and probably a very meaningful experience but then I still think this could be done on your own volition through purchasing rice at the market and kneeling next to the locals. Really, this is primarily geared for the large tour buses that come from China and were the main occupants of these plastic stalls when we were there aside from a few westerners dotted here and there.
The main issue we (as well as many other people judging by the many blog posts I’ve read on this) have with this tourist inclusion element of the ceremony is the lack of respect for the tradition and the monks not just in their religious capacity but as real people. There are signs throug Luang Prabang that outlines the etiquette that should be observed during the alms giving. Knees, shoulders and midriffs should all be covered and women should remain kneeling whilst in the presence of the monks. We saw western women taking part in the ceremony with their shoulders fully exposed which baffles me as they had specifically come out to participate in the ceremony and so they could have easily worn a top with sleeves. We’d also seen a number of people with incredibly large cameras putting them in the monk’s face or setting up tripods along the route so they could shoot pictures of themselves giving an offering. Sometimes the monks would have their route blocked by a tourist wanting to take a picture which is also another huge no.
We had been able to find small pockets of the road where locals were giving their offerings and were able to carry out this ancient tradition in peace. These were the best places and, although you don’t get to see the same number of the monks if you leave the main tourist road, I read you’d be able to find a lot more real, traditional alms giving like it has been done for centuries if you venture off down a quiet road away from the main tourist spots. It was also interesting to see other aspects of the ceremony for example steet children had plastic bags or baskets along the route and instead of them giving an offering to the monk they were given rice and other offerings themselves by passers by and the monks which was nice to see as it showed the whole community looking after the less fortunate. We had seen an alms giving ceremony in Bangkok when we had arrived at 4am which had been cool as it was completely by chance and on a smaller, more intimate scale.
The rest of the day was beautifully sunny which was perfect as it meant we were able to walk around the city and relax in the sunshine. We headed up to Mount Phou Si which gives you good views over Luang Prabang. This 100m high hill is right in the centre of town so we were just able to walk here and it isn’t a bad climb up the 355 steps to the top. The entrance fee is 20,000 kip (£1.80) and at the top there is also a small temple with a stupa here called Wat Chom Si. The views from the top are really nice and show you the mountains, the Mekong River and over Luang Prabang. We spent quite a while up here enjoying the view as we had the time to kill and during the day it isn’t very busy so you’re able to sit and enjoy it in peace.
The rest of the day we walked through town and along the Mekong River, regularly stopping and sitting by the water. The river is set a few metres below the street and you climb down big stone steps to reach the water. Along the route people will half heartedly offer you boat trips but they aren’t very pushy here which is nice. We didn’t fancy getting on a boat and enjoyed walking around instead. It couldn’t have been nicer being by the peaceful Mekong with children playing in the water across the river and there being a clear blue sky. I bought a coconut for 15,000 kip (£1.35) which was the biggest coconut I’ve ever seen! We ended up sitting down for me to drink it as it was really heavy and then when I couldn’t drink any more of it the man I bought it off poured the remaining coconut water into a cup for me and scooped out the flesh for me to eat too which was really good!
Before heading for our tea we decided to go back up to the viewpoint we were at earlier that day. At the bottom of the hill there was now an enormous market that stretched the full length of the street selling souvenirs and clothes. It had anything you could want as a momento or for presents for loved ones back home and you get a good view over the entire market once you started the climb. It was really busy at the top of the hill with everyone waiting for sunset but we were still able to find a spot and the sunset was pretty so it was worth being a bit hot and cramped!That evening we went to a food market that we had walked past the night before. A small alleyway have been covered by tarp and there was a long row of different vendors selling food. We chose the busiest one which we had also read about in blogs before we came to Luang Prabang. It served all vegetarian food (meat would be BBQ’d to order for extra) and it was 15,000kip (£1.35) for as much food as you could fit in a bowl. We definitely made sure to fit in a lot and there was range of different vegetables, different types of pastas and noodles, rice, spring rolls and curried pumpkin. It was never going to win awards but it wasn’t bad at all and we both couldn’t finish our bowls! The place was heaving and we had managed to get there just before a huge rush of people came so the people running the store must have made a fortune.We loved Luang Prabang. The city was really pretty and we never got tired of seeing the Mekong River flowing past. We made managed to get cheap, good food and had filled our days nicely with enough things to see and do. As an introduction to Laos it was perfect and made us instantly fall in love with the country. It made us excited and ready for what we had to come.
Next stop: Vang Vieng
Sending love x