Laos-Laos, BeerLao and how Laos is terrible at naming its national drinks

My journey from Bangkok to Laos was in the form of a long overnight bus ride that involved me getting scammed out of significant $$$ due to booking through a Khao San Road travel agent instead of just going to the bus station myself. The extra baht I gave them bought me a crowded minibus ride to the bus station, where the driver bought me a bus ticket and told me to wait three hours for my ride. This bad booking decision was largely because the only info I could find online about the journey was a (very reliable) TripAdvisor comment that read:

“Hi

I also paied 800 Baht Over night Bus From Vientiene to Bang Kok.

I booked from Hotel I stayed. yOU ALSO DO LIKE THIS.

Best regard.” [sic] [seriously sic]

Yep so it kind of went like this…

Q: “HELLO! IS THIS BORDER?” A: “YOU GET OFF BUS NOW…*incomprehensible Thai*”

It’s difficult to remember exactly but I think the journey took around 18 hours in total. It wasn’t a sleeper bus – just a regular public bus – but one of the many talents I have developed during my travels is the ability to sleep soundly in almost any position, so I wasn’t too bothered.

However, aside from one South Korean girl, I was the only English-speaking person on the bus. These bus rides tend to consist of long stints of lights-off time so you can sleep while the driver manically navigates the lethal roads before VERY SUDDENLY ALL THE LIGHTS COME ON AND THERE ARE PEOPLE SHOUTING IN YOUR FACE IN THAI.

This wouldn’t have been (too much of) a problem, but I knew we had to cross the border at some point, and I also knew I was the only person on the bus who would have to secure a visa at the crossing. This meant that every time we had a wake-up, with no idea why we’d stopped, I’d have to get off the bus – which always looked like it had pulled up in the middle of nowhere – and sleepily try to deduce whether it looked at all like a border crossing. To add to the alarming nature of this situation, the bus driver didn’t seem to care whether everyone was back on the bus before leaving, and we were chased by left-behind passengers after two of these stops. In addition, the South Korean girl had for some reason decided that I definitely knew what I was doing, and had taken to following me around – yep, even to the bathroom, so if I messed up, there would be two of us stuck.

Upon arrival at the actual border crossing at 7am the following day, I realised I’d overstayed my Thai visa by a day – or six hours – due to a combination of the overnight nature of my journey and maths never having been my strong suit. Luckily I got off with a 500 baht (£10) fine from the Royal Thai Police, but the dazed man behind me in the Naughty Queue had apparently overstayed by some three months, so it’s unlikely he got off so easy. After a quick visa processing session we were back on the bus and on our way to Vientiane – the capital of Laos.

My decision to visit Vientiane was simply due to the fact that my bus went there, and that no nation’s capital was going to be AWFUL, despite warnings from other travellers (and Google) that it was indeed AWFUL.

Inside Buddha’s head

I stayed in a shit hostel that was full of travellers who were all self-congratulating for “getting off the beaten path” (aka knobs). I was staying there for two days, so, trying to find things to do, I caught a public bus up to Buddha Park, which was just a really weird experience tbh.

It was created in the late fifties by some sort of rogue priest-shamen who believed in integrating the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, and started a sculpture park in line with his hybrid beliefs. In the seventies, he fled Laos for Thailand, where he created yet another bizarre sculpture park for those lucky Thais. These days Buddha Park operates as a weird and wonderful tourist attraction.

It is essentially a couple of small fields filled with stone sculptures that mesh the imagery from Hinduism and Buddhism. The main thing to do there is to climb through Buddha’s tiny mouth inside his head, which boasts circular rooms filled with statues of all shapes and sizes, all of them creepy and definitely staring at you. To be honest it would make a great horror movie set. This was one of the times during my solo travel where I would really have liked someone to be there to hold my hand.

Needless to stay I didn’t stay long at Buddha Park, and returned to Vientiane only to get lost in its bland, sprawling streets and have to get a motorbike back to the shit hostel. There just really is nothing in this city at all, so I whiled away the night playing pool with a guy from Brighton at the hostel who may have been The Most Stoned Person I Have Met in My Life. I was cool with it though because it meant I won all the games.

The next day I decided to visit some Buddhist temples around the city. While I had been slightly templed out in Thailand, the temples are usually beautiful, peaceful and – most importantly – not creepy.

Terrible, terrible human beings

On my way back to the hostel I stopped for a drink at a harmless-looking street bar, only to find myself in the middle of a hostage situation. Okay so ‘hostage situation’ might be a bit of a strong term for it, but that is kind of what it felt like.

I ordered a beer and sat at the bar only to meet three of the most undesirable expats ever to grace the earth. A drink-addled 70-something from Bristol, a wild-eyed Danish guy who – I later learned through him talking at me – was a complete sexual deviant and almost certainly high, and – of course – Keith Lemon. Well, Keith Lemon if he had spent the past ten years living in Thailand and though he still had a strong Wigan accent, talked in the staccato, stilted sentences familiar to those trying to speak English to Thai people. They kept topping up my beer and – as there was clearly nothing else to do in Vientiane – I hung out with them all afternoon. They had all come to Vientiane just for a few days to renew their Thai visas so they could go back to their Thai brides. Being from Bradford, I have hung out in some dodgy pubs with some dodgy people in my time, but this time I was actually scared for my safety.

The conversation would go thusly: Keith Lemon would say he was “only going home in a body bag”, the Danish guy would make fun of him, and expect me to laugh at what he said. If I did laugh at what he said, Keith Lemon would say very offensive – and very ‘blue’, as my friend Clare would put it – things to the Danish man, and expect me to laugh at what HE SAID. If I didn’t laugh at what he said, Keith Lemon would stroke my leg and tell me I was a “good English lass”. The old drunk Bristol guy – who was comparatively alright really – just sort of winked at me every now and then.

This cycle went on for hours, and every time I tried to leave, they made vaguely threatening comments about going back to their hotel and topped up my beer, so I just stayed looking for an out. At one point they shouted some strongly-worded homophobic comments at a nice young man in a business suit who was sat across the bar on his laptop, and I knew I had to get out. 

In the end, I went over and apologised to the man they had shouted at and made it clear I didn’t know them, and then left out the back exit and hired a bike to get away fast. However, by this point I was so trashed on BeerLao (a lovely smooth local beer) that I shouldn’t really have got on a bike, as evidenced by the fact that the next morning my purse was £20 lighter and I had some sort of Laos army badge in my bag from 1945. In unrelated news, is anyone interested in buying a Laos army badge from 1945 for £20?

As you can probably tell, the next day I was extremely happy to board a bus for Vang Vieng.

Beautiful Vang Vieng: Breathtaking views, kayaking down the Mekong and bug-induced PTSD

The scenery in Vang Vieng was a welcome relief from Vientiane’s built-up nothingness. A really chilled town set amid Laos’ stunning mountain scenery, Vang Vieng is a firm favourite on the backpacker trail largely thanks to its drinking-heavily-while-tubing-down-the-Mekong opportunities.

However (because OF COURSE there is a however), my time there was marred slightly by the HORRIFIC hostel I stayed in. The room I was put in was so covered in damp and mould that I slept in my raincoat, despite the insane heat – because for $2 a night you are not getting air conditioning.

The first morning I woke up absolutely COVERED in ants. I don’t mean like “oh there were several ants on me”, I mean like “there were hundreds and hundreds, it was like a scene out of a horror film”. As the shower was also covered in ants, I didn’t really feel clean the whole time I was there. I was sharing my room with three Korean men who inexplicably seemed to LOVE it in there, so every time I’d go back, they’d be drinking Laos Laos whiskey in the room and having a jolly old time sat amid the mould and the bugs.

On the first day – having decided my MO would be “get out of this ant-filled hell hole for as long as possible”, I went on a day tour. I’d decided the drinking-and-tubing-down-the-Mekong probably wasn’t something I was going to pursue because it was low season so the tubing bars were empty, and, frankly, I had no friends and didn’t envisage that a day of getting drunk and floating down a huge river on my own would be like THE MOST FUN, not to mention the most safe.

Instead I went (sober) tubing inside a cave, which was pretty cool. We all got a rubber ring, and you had to sort of pull yourself along inside the cave, using ropes that were affixed across the caves. Now, as I’ve been away and met more and more Chinese people, I’ve noticed a lot of differences between our cultures. However, the most unexpected one I learned that day. Chinese people LOVE to splash you. Even if they’ve never met you before, and what they’re splashing you with is dirty cave water. Yep, they cannot get enough of it.

After our splashy tubing experience, we dried off with a delicious lunch of veggie kebabs and rice, served on big leaves on the riverbank. And then it was time for a trek to Elephant Village to see its eponymous cave.

Q: “Why is it called Elephant Village? Do elephants live there?”

A: “No it is called Elephant Village because there is a rock in a cave there that kind of sort of reminds you of an elephant”.

Q: “Oh.”

While we wouldn’t be tubing down the Mekong, we were doing something way more cool: kayaking (which, if it is a sport, is my new favourite sport). I was sharing a kayak with a muscle-bound American guy (HELLO), and luckily he was ripped and we’d both done it before. I say “luckily” because you should have seen what happened to the more inexperienced kayakers as they attempted to navigate the rapids. Some got stuck on the rocks, and spent ages trying to shunt themselves along, others gracelessly crashed into the trees on the river bank, while many completely capsized.

We passed a few solo-tubers, who generally looked miserable, sunburnt and had empty glasses in hand. It was a really hot day and the river wasn’t moving very fast, so while it was only meant to take three hours to tube down the Mekong, it looked like it would take a lot longer. After stopping at a deserted tubing bar which was bleakly blasting loud chart hits, we passed a Chinese girl who was not moving at all and had taken to playing on her phone as she drifted, we glided past a man who had long since given up on his tube and was attempting to swim downriver, dragging it along, and we saw some girls who were moving so slowly they grabbed the back of our kayak for a bit of help.

The rest of my time in Vang Vieng was spent in Paddy’s Pub (those Irish get everywhere don’t they?) drinking cider and using their strong WiFi connection, riding around town on a vintage bike, and hanging out with a guy from Preston who had gone travelling and decided to stay and work at the bug-heavy hostel I was staying at, though why he chose that hostel is beyond me. It’s a really nice town to stay and chill in for a little bit, although if I could do it all again I really would choose a different hostel.

On my last night in the hostel, I kept thinking I could feel things (ants) on me, and continually woke up in fits, slapping imaginary bugs off myself, only to use my iPhone torch (for peace of mind) and discover they weren’t imaginary at all and that the infestation was now worse than ever. It was about 3am, but I jumped up, used the shower to hose myself off, fully clothed, and went downstairs in my raincoat to find a girl trying to sleep on one of the seats outside the hostel.

A Laotian man who worked at the hostel was shouting at her that she needed to go sleep in her room, but she was refusing to move. I asked her what room she was meant to be in and she said “2A” which was the same as me. Apparently she’d been there two nights but was sleeping outside as a better alternative to going back in THERE. I told the guy that if he didn’t put us both in new – better condition – rooms for the night I’d write them a terrible Tripadvisor review, and just like that we both got put in wonderful rooms complete with air con and mozzie nets, and everyone else in 2A was evacuated and moved to better rooms in the middle of the night. It was then I learned something that would serve me well during the rest of my travels: ’Tripadvisor’ really is a magic word.

However, for weeks afterwards – even in the really nice hotels – I would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like there were bugs on me and not be able to go back to sleep until I’d checked. I didn’t manage to completely shake this until I’d left Laos altogether.

(Do go) chasing waterfalls in Luang Prabang

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh Luang Prabang. Be still my beating heart <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

This turned out to be one of my favourite places on my entire itinerary. Luang Prabang is a gorgeous little UNESCO World Heritage Site on the bank of the Mekong, filled with quaint wooden guest houses, a fantastic night market and plenty of pretty little shops and restaurants. While I IN NO WAY condone colonialism, I was certainly not complaining about some of the things the French had left behind during their time here. For example, after months of choosing between local food that was never really to my taste and fake ‘western’ food that always tastes a little ‘off’, I could freely buy authentic baguettes, pastries, cheese and even REALLY GOOD WINE. I’m not going to lie to you about this: I spent every single night I was in Luang Prabang sat in wine bars drinking Sauvignon Blanc and feasting on bread and cheese boards largely by myself. Tbh I figured I’d earned it by this point.

To add to the heavenly aura of Luang Prabang, after staying in hostels for so long, I’d decided to treat myself to a guesthouse at $30 (or 244,809 kip) a night: a big departure from my Vang Vieng $2-a-night nightmare. Upon arrival at MyLaoHome I was so delighted to see a room with a double bed, clean sheets, bug-free power shower and air con that I spent a large amount of time rolling around on the bed, revelling in the cool air and laughing manically to myself, all while on the verge of tears. The guest house was made up of wooden bungalows, and every morning there was free breakfast at their restaurant, which was situated down the road on the banks of the Mekong. At MyLaosHome, I was honestly in heaven.

If you ever, ever go to Luang Prabang, the first thing you must do is go to Kuang Si waterfalls. While Kuang Si can’t compare to Brazil’s Iguassu Falls in terms of sheer size and power, they are one of the prettiest things I have ever seen in my life and my trip there was blissful. The short trek to the falls starts off at a bear sanctuary, which was actually quite cool because I realised I’d never seen a bear IRL before.

Carrying on up the trail, you come to a number of small waterfalls and turquoise natural pools you can swim in before reaching the biggest waterfall at the top. There is an option to trek to the top of this, but I got about half way in the forest before realising my flip-flops were not going to make it and was forced to retreat.

The scenery was so breathtaking I just wanted to GET IN IT so on my way back down I was psyching myself up to just face the fish and flipping jump in the pool. My first venture in was an embarrassment – I put one foot in the lake before these STUPID big white fish came and started nibbling at me so I screamed and flapped around and ran away. Then I came up with a plan to MAKE myself do it, playing on the fact that I absolutely hate looking scared in front of other people. I gave my camera to two Chinese girls and asked them to take pictures of me once I was in the middle of the pool, and then I jumped off a tree so I wouldn’t have the chance to freak out at the foot fish. The pool was very cooling and felt wonderful, but after the pictures were taken I got out pretty sharpish, always aware of what was lurking under the water.

I switched from my lovely guest house to an okay hostel at this point, due to my dwindling kip. Technically I was a multi-millionaire but apparently that doesn’t mean the same as at home as £1 is worth almost 13,000 kip. It was at this point that I encountered the worst scam of my trip. I asked at my guesthouse if I needed to get a ride to the hostel, or whether I could walk it, and was told to get a tuk-tuk. My tuk-tuk took me on a half-hour journey out into the countryside, to the point where I didn’t know where I was anymore, and charged me about £3 (a lot for a journey in Laos), despite my haggling attempts. When I got to the hostel, confused because I’d been told it was in central Luang Prabang, I asked for a map, and worked out that I was literally a 2 minute walk from my old guesthouse. I had been had.

Laos-Laos, Buddha cave and dog meat

During my time in Luang Prabang I also took a trip to Whiskey Village and Buddha Cave.

Whiskey Village is famed for it’s Laos-Laos whiskey – not for a rock in a cave that sort of kind of looks like whiskey. A number of villages brew this potent beverage in jars that also contain geckos, snakes, tiger bones, bear paws, cockroaches and a number of other unsavoury creatures. During a visit to the village you can try free shots of Laos-Laos and rice wine, but most of the people there – like everywhere else I’ve been – are just trying to sell you cloths they’ve woven.

Buddha Cave is – unsurprisingly – a cave filled with statues of Buddha. The best thing about the lower cave is that you can crawl out onto a dangerous ledge, that you certainly would not be allowed to in the UK, while the upper cave is more spectacular, and has an interesting history given that no-one is certain how the Buddhas all got there.

One night I was out enjoying yet another wine and cheese night, and I got talking to an English man in his early 60s who’d been working at charities in Asia for the best part of 30 years and was on the brink of retirement. His half-Thai son had been sent to Newcastle Uni (my alma mater) but hated it on account of he did not understand or like British culture. I liked him because he reminded me of my dad, who I miss very much. He bought us a bottle of very expensive wine and we set about putting the world to rights when one of the waitresses came over, seemingly upset, and started talking to him hurriedly in the Laos language. After she left he explained that she was angry because the restaurant next door had stolen her dog the day before and eaten it. The previous evening I had eaten the first meat of my trip in the form of Spag bol. At the restaurant next door. BLEAURGH.

The next morning, in a bid to cleanse my body and soul after the dog meat disaster, I went with some girls from the hostel to a morning yoga session, and then had breakfast with my South Korean roommates, who were all obsessed with England, treated me like a celebrity and gave me a cute purse as a gift from their country when I left. One of them was “too shy” to attempt to speak English in my presence. Aside from other Brits, my favourite nationality to talk to when travelling is Canadian, but South Korean people come a close second, and it’s firmly on my bucket list to visit the country.

And then it was time to leave amazing, wonderful Luang Prabang and head to Hanoi in Vietnam, where I would be meeting my pal Clare. Laos was the first time I’d travelled a country without a tour group or friends coming to visit, and as such it came with a new set of problems unique to trying to get from A to B as a solo female traveller. That said, I’d really enjoyed my two-week ‘travelling solo’ experience. I was impressed with myself for navigating Laos without getting into too much trouble, and I’d had such a good time on my own. I really liked how I could just chill in a very antisocial way when I wanted to, but when I fancied some company I’d just talk to pretty much anyone and usually end up having an interesting night. A big part of the experience is also how you have to face things and just deal when they go wrong, because there’s no-one else to depend on, whether it be friends, parents or even the local police.

But like I said, it was time to board my bus to Hanoi. And though I was unaware at the time, it was going to be a strong contender for the 30 most painful hours of my existence. But that’s another story…

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