Laos: Luang, Vang, thank you Ma’am

Come on, that’s a great headline. Anyway…

The North of Vietnam had been somewhat difficult – in that frustrating, wonderful, people-laughing-in-your-face-while-you’re-being-scammed way that only the ‘Nam can provide. After a freezing, wet New Year spent in Hanoi with our chest-infected friend Craig in an Airbnb with no windows and an outdoor shower, we were at a bit of a low ebb. No offence Craig. 

This was evidenced one morning when – after three months of subsisting on bland Asian veggie noodles – I cracked and demanded a cinema trip, solely because my body was craving salt, and I wanted that salt to be delivered via me sticking my face in a jumbo bucket of salted popcorn. But, upon arriving at the cinema’s confectionery counter, I was informed they only stocked tomato and chilli-flavoured popcorn. Let me repeat that. No salted popcorn, but it’s a strong yes on TOMATO POPCORN. Given my mental state, the vendor’s mocking face – “SALTTTT??!????? Ahahahahahah Noooooooo” – pushed me over the edge. I spent the entire showing of Mary Poppins Returns in a bleak mood that not even the sugary songs of a contrived retelling of a Disney classic could break. So it’s safe to say, by this point, I was pretty happy to leave Vietnam after seven enchanting yet highly frustrating weeks making our way north through the country. It was the salt that broke the camel’s back. EYOOOOOOO. 

We were on the way to Laos, and this time there would be no 30-hour hell bus, as – being slightly older and much, much wiser – I’d convinced Phil we should splash out on flights. Consequently, I was incredibly smug as we jetted over the unforgettable bus route I’d suffered through four years ago, as a naive 26-year-old. And – having spent a month in Laos back then – I knew that this leg of our trip would provide a soothing tonic for our beaten souls. And this isn’t one of those blogs where I’m going to list reasons I was oh so wrong: once again, Laos proved itself to be a genuine delight. In fact, if there is a heaven, I think it will look a lot like Laos – but – vitally – it will contain more corner shops. 

The hotel that wasn’t 

After a one-hour flight from Hanoi, we landed in Luang Prabang, which is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest cities in the world. And Uncle UNESCO agrees. While technically an ancient city, it feels a lot more like a leafy town, sitting happily on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. And – importantly, after our time in Vietnam – it is suuuuuuuuper chilled out. Little restaurants and cafes line the riverbanks, and the side streets consist of quaint teak houses. You can buy bread and cheese (thanks French colonialism!). And no-one laughs in your face. 

Yet, we somehow managed to make our introduction to Luang Prabang mildly stressful and very stupid. Having given the tuk-tuk driver the name of our guesthouse, upon arrival we were slightly surprised when it looked nothing like the pictures. To the uninitiated, it could appear more like a family home, with two young girls playing outside on a scooter, and a snoozing grandma slumped in front of the TV. However, it wasn’t our first ride on the heady Southeast Asian accomodation rodeo: a lot of places we’d stayed by this point had granted us a less-than-formal welcome. 

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Wat you see is Wat you get

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We paid the driver in Laos Kip, lugged our backpacks inside, and told the grandma we had a reservation. She looked slightly perturbed by our existence (again, not an unusual welcome), but, after some back and forth, directed us to a room in the back of the house. The room was tiny, messy, and – again – looked absolutely nothing like the photos on I was ready to accept our fate – scammed again! – but Phil went back to the lounge and asked the grandma for the Wi-Fi password. A quick Google revealed we were two streets away from our intended hotel. We’d waltzed into a family home and requested – nay, insisted – that they immediately show us to our room. There was nothing for it: heaving our bags back on, we marched back through the living room, nodded a dignified goodbye, and walked over to our – actually very nice for the money – hotel. 

I’ll never get sick of Luang Prabang

The best thing about being in Luang Prabang is simply being in Luang Prabang. The whole place is super chilled out, even when it’s busy. The night market is a delight – selling artworks, and locally-sourced jewellery, and all sorts of other things you actually want to buy, with no hassle from the vendors. Everyone is friendly, but incredibly polite – like, pre-Brexit British standards of politeness. 

Meanwhile, the walking street is home to a swathe of amazing restaurants and bars that sell cheese boards, baked treats, and really good wine – three of my favourite things, all of which had been horribly absent on our trip thus far. The trade off is that, obviously, dining like this is way more expensive than usual Southeast Asian fare – although still not as pricey as at home. Our favourite bar was Ikon Club: a diminutive smoky room filled with vintage art which is about as close to a pub as you’re going to get in Southeast Asia. It’s run by a super friendly Hungarian poet who always wears one leather glove, and you can play chess there. One night, I accidentally left my work notebook in the bar, which contained nothing but the history of a castle near Porto, a comic sketch of Phil’s face, and stats about the Southeast Asian dairy industry (I work hard). When I went to collect it, the Hungarian poet had convinced everyone in the bar to pretend they’d read it and now knew all my darkest secrets (presumably, such as how SE Asia consumes less than 20kg of dairy per capita every year). The sheer banter was overwhelming. 

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Tell me more soft boi

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We couldn’t visit Luang Prabang without a visit to Kuang Si Falls, which have long been in the top three of my Best Waterfalls I’ve Ever Seen list (yes, it exists), along with Croatia’s Plitvice Falls and Argentina/Brazil’s Iguazu Falls.

So – once I’d managed to tear Phil away from Ikon’s chess board – we hopped in a van and, upon arrival, waved a cheery hello to the Moon Bears that bumble around in the tall forest before hiking up to the top of the falls. When I first visited I just chilled and went for a swim but OF COURSE that was not ‘authentic’ enough for Phil ‘I must reach the highest peak’ Norris. 

The colour of the water is otherworldly: it’s not clear, but is a vivid sky blue in a heady matte that requires no filter. To climb to the top of the main waterfall, you have to take a steep route through the forest, grasping onto gargantuan tree roots for balance, and trekking up stone steps as cool water runs downhill over your feet. At the top, there’s a serene forest filled with streams and brooks, and fallen tree branches that enable you to cross – unsteadily – from one side to the other. 

Luckily, Kuang Si was one of those places that really stood up to my memory of it. 

No I won’t come to your house to be pimped out over homebrewed whisky 

The next day we went for a walk along the river, and happened across a bamboo bridge that took us away from the tiny peninsula Luang Prabang sits on, onto a firmer part of the Laos mainland. We’d spotted a big rock across the Mekong that we wanted to stand on – that’s just the sort of thing we like to do – but hadn’t anticipated that we’d first have to contend with a would-be matchmaker who lived in a wooden hut next to said rock, who really, really wanted us to drink some local whisky with him. 

As we clambered unsteadily onto the rock, in a last attempt to get us to go to his house for whisky, he told us that he could find Phil a nice Laos girl, and me a nice Laos boy, and introduce us all over some local hooch. We tried to explain we’d already met each other – but he seemed deeply unhappy about this sad fact. In the end he agreed – in a very disappointed manner – to simply sell us two bottles of water, even as he urged us to come to his house to drink them. 

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Just sitting around being super casual

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After politely turning him down for the millionth time, we meandered around the forest, enjoying the view from a nearby temple and the many grazing goats, when another tourist with filthy clothes and a wild look in his eye rather desperately asked us the way back to Luang Prabang. This was pretty odd because you could literally see Luang Prabang – and the bridge to get there – from where we were stood, but he had the Chris McCandless manner of someone who had been wandering lost, in the small forest with a clearly marked path, for days. 

Mooooooving on…

Our final days in Luang Prabang were spent pursuing a journalistic endeavour: interviewing some Australians who ran a buffalo farm, to inform an in-flight mag feature for which I’d been commissioned. Happily, they agreed to the interview, and we spent a fascinating few hours at Laos Buffalo Dairy – getting a bit closer to the buffalo than I had perhaps anticipated. 

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this throughout this blog, roughly a thousand times, but there’s no cheese or butter in Southeast Asia, other than in high-end settings. It turns out that in Laos, most people are unaware that milk even comes from cows – instead believing it to be a product of fruit, much like coconut milk. So, while pretty much every rural family owns a buffalo, to work the land and be sold for meat, no-one is aware they can be milked. This is a shame, not just because dairy is wonderful, but because the poor nutrition levels in Laos children could be somewhat countered through dairy intake. Perhaps due to a historic lack of dairy in their diet, many Southeast Asians have a mild intolerance to cow’s milk, but it turns out the buffalo product doesn’t elicit such a strong reaction. As well as selling cheese to high-end hotels and restaurants in Luang Prabang, the dairy is also working to improve nutrition in the surrounding villages, and – as the buffalos are rented from local farmers rather than bought – provide an extra income stream for local people. 

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We were told all this as we wandered around the farm, feeding baby buffalo (cute), grooming a huge bull called Ferdinand (okay), and attempting to milk a buffalo (ARGH!). Phil was much better at it than me, and Suzie, one of the dairy’s owners, remarked with a knowing smile that men often are, as they’re less sensitive about yanking the animal’s teats and hurting her. Obviously, Phil is *great* in bed. <<< Bit of blue for the dads. 

Ultimately, we left Luang Prabang with soothed souls, and in possession of a lot more knowledge re: the Asian dairy industry than I could ever have dreamed. 

The emotionally-scarring road to Vang Vieng

I’m now going to tell you a story about a time I cried. Feel free to skip ahead if this makes you uncomfortable, but bear in mind – if you’re the sort of person who finds the idea of me crying unpalatable – that you’ll probably find this unfortunate story somewhat amusing. 

We were on a bus to Vang Vieng – the 1990s backpacker haven famed for its Mekong tubing opportunities, and the fatalities/injuries attached to this pastime. Vang Vieng is still popular among backpackers, but since the government put sensible policies in place designed to make tubing safer (aka fewer bars along the banks of the Mekong, and none close to the edge of the waterfall), it’s never really regained the numbers it drew in its carefree heyday. “Bloody Elf and Safety eh?” 

This bus ride posed no real concern for me – it was just another in a long string of minibus journeys, and at six hours, was relatively short. But – and this is a big but – minibuses, not having toilets onboard, generally stop roughly every two hours so everyone can stretch their legs, pick up a drink, and go to the bathroom. 

After three hours on this bus – with no breaks – I realised I needed a piss. Three point five hours in, I was desperate. At four hours, I asked the driver if we could stop somewhere – toilets, bushes, wherever – and he ignored me. Fifteen minutes later, I asked him louder, and he said “no, we stop in one hour”. As the reality sunk in – the reality that I was literally going to have to piss myself on this bus, in front of 12 strangers – I began to tear up. And I do not cry easily; as a baby I was apparently eerily silent. Luckily, a lovely group of Thai holidaymakers, who we’d spoken to earlier, took my case up with the driver, shouting at him incessantly until he eventually agreed to stop at a local house so we could use the bathroom. I have genuinely never been more relieved – both emotionally and physically – and given how the entire van ran for the outhouse, I can’t have been the only one. As Phil remarked later, once we could laugh about it: “I have literally never seen anyone cry just because they need a piss”. Travel truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Hashtag wanderlust. 

Vang Vieng: Eat, sleep, drink content (not opium)

Vang Vieng was a bit of a weird one in a way – there’s plenty to do and see there (kayaking in the Mekong, hot air balloon rides, Buddha cave and whisky village), but we had so much work on while we were there that we actually did very little. Instead, we just sat outside at the Mad Monkey hostel and churned out that life-giving content, occasionally jumping in the pool for a dip alongside the praying mantis that lived there. It wasn’t a bad life tbh. Vang Vieng is absolutely jaw-dropping, with greenery-blanketed mountains rising up in every direction, the air thick with bright butterflies, and balloons floating over orange-rose sunsets. 

We did venture out at night on our bicycles, however, having discovered an Irish bar (they’re everywhere) that served genuinely brilliant veggie burgers. After drinking altogether too much, Phil and I would race each other across town back to the Mad Monkey on our bikes – a thrilling game I always won (the narrative layers run deep here), but I can’t believe we didn’t get hurt playing. Especially given the fact that I managed to fall off a stationary bike one night after too many beers in front of some new travel friends. 

But after a couple of nights hanging out at Gary’s Irish Bar, and feeling just a little inauthentic, we decided to see what more ‘Laos’ eating options there were in this legendary backpacker haven. We ended up eating noodles at a hippie restaurant where the actual menu included marijuana and…wait for it…fucking OPIUM?!?!? I’m all for a restaurant with a bit of edge but Jesus Christ. Apparently they just close shop when the police zoom past, which isn’t often, and the two backpackers currently working there seemed, like, not in a good way. All in all it was a pretty depressing place, despite all the fantastic kittens that frequented it. But I unapologetically enjoyed Vang Vieng as a whole, and Phil’s verdict was: “green, mountainous, trees, balloons, opium.” 

So, what’s next?

After Vang Vieng, the plan was to head to Vientiane – Laos’ capital, which I found extremely bleak during my last visit – and then to bus down to 4,000 Islands: a riverine archipelago (can’t believe I spelt that right after three wines). And to achieve this without pissing ourselves, or smoking our way into some sort of insane opium addiction. But, this was Laos, and anything was possible: stay tuned folks. 

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