Wednesday 5th to Thursday 13th December 2012
Vientiane 5th to 8th
Vientiane delivers a relaxing riverside break where one of the best things you can do is grab a drink and enjoy the sun's spectacular show as it sets over the Mekong. Despite being the largest city in Laos and the hub of commerce and administration, Vientiane is still refreshingly laid back.
The city offers a great choice of accommodation, restaurants and pavement cafes some adding a French air with their style of architecture which contrasts pleasingly with the old Buddhist temples dotted around. There are plenty of things to do after dark and bars cater to all tastes from backpacker beer haunts to elegant cocktail lounges. Navigating Vientiane is relatively simple due to its size and sightseeing can be done either on foot, by bike or by hiring a song-teow. The countryside is never far away, with rice paddies providing a backdrop to most streets. Culture buffs should make the Laos National Museum their first stop.
When in Laos, do as the Laos do and the slow the pace right down. A common joke is that acronym PDF (Peoples Democratic Republic) actually stands for 'Please Slow Down'. A word of warning to the anally punctual, the country is decidedly laid back and some visitors may mistake this for a lack of ambition or impolitesse but regardless, it's best not to expect things to run like clockwork.
We settle into our accomodation which is close to the Mekong River and resembles a tradtional Laos cottage, we will be served breakfast of fruit and fresh baked croisants with juice and tea. The staff are very friendly and welcoming, they are also dressed in traditional clothing as are most women around town.
Thursday 6th December
Today we go on a walking tour of Vientiane passing the Presidential Palace and then onto
Ho Pra Keo
Vientiane boasts several beautiful temples or wats, but one of the most impressive and interesting of them is Wat Ho Phra Keo. It was originally constructed in 1565 as the Lao royal family's personal chapel, and as a home for the Emerald Buddha after it was snatched from northern Siam (Thailand). This sacred jade statue was reclaimed by the Siamese in 1778 and now sits in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.
Even without the Emerald Buddha, however, Ho Phra Keo is well worth a visit. The only part of the old royal palace that has survived, the temple is no longer used for religious purposes and is now a museum. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, as it is often known in English, is richly adorned with carved wooden features, a magnificent 16th century lacquered door with Hindu carvings, numerous Khmer stone carvings and a variety of Buddha statues.
Wat Si Saket located in Vientiane is famous for its cloister wall housing thousands of tiny Buddha images and rows with hundreds of seated Buddhas. These images mainly date from the 16th and 19th centuries and come in all sizes and are made from wood, stone and bronze - more than 6,800 Buddhas in total.
Wat Si Saket is not only famous for the interior walls of the cloister but it also has beautiful architecture and layout with history dated back to 1818. Among the many interesting features there are its lovely surrounding verandas, an ornate five-tiered roof, a drum tower, a small library building with a Burmese-style roof and the flowered ceiling of the ordination hall.
Located opposite the Presidential Palace, the temple was built by Chao Anuvong, the last king of the Lan Xang Kingdom in early Bangkok-style architecture mixed with its own unique style. It survived the Siamese-Lao war of 1828 and has become the oldest Buddhist monastery in Laos.
Patouxay Monument (Victory Monument)
With its crenellated upper level topped with five ornate towers in the traditional Laos style, the Patuxai Victory Monument cuts a distinctive figure on the Vientiane skyline. It forms the centrepiece of Patuxai Park, and is dedicated to the Laos who were killed in the fight to gain independence from France, as well as from the nation's earlier occupiers, Siam and Japan.
Situated at the end of one of the capital's grand avenues, the large, square arch is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. However, as a monument to Laos' resilience and eventual independence, Patuxai was designed to pay homage to its national culture and traditions.
The interior of the monument is also richly decorated with painted walls and ceilings depicting gods, goddesses and elephants. For a small fee, you can climb to the top to enjoy the panoramic view of the charming, old-fashioned city of Vientiane with its many trees, low-rise buildings and temples, and all the way across the Mekong River to Thailand.
Patuxai was built between 1957 and 1968 using funds from the U.S. government.
It is sometimes nicknamed the 'vertical runway' as the cement used was intended for the construction of a new airport.
That Luang, or the Great Stupa, in Vientiane is a national symbol (its image is on Laos' official seal) and also the most sacred monument in the country. From the outside That Luang looks more like a fortress surrounded by high walls and it features two temples with the main stupa, the top of which is covered with gold leaf, standing 148 feet tall.
The beautiful architecture is in Lao style, influenced by Buddhist beliefs - these include finely-gilded, red-lacquer doors, pointed lesser stupas, many Buddha images and beautiful flower and animal images.
Locals say that it was originally built as early as the third century to house a breastbone of the Lord Buddha brought to Laos by an Indian missionary. However, the current structure was built by King Setthathirat in 1566 on the site of a 13th century Khmer ruin. He named Vientiane the capital after Luang Prabang in the mid-sixteenth century. An elegantly crafted statue of him stands in front of the main entrance to That Luang.
That Luang was greatly damaged by the Burmese, Chinese and Siamese during invasions in the 18th and 19th centuries then was basically left alone until French colonial times. Restoration work was completed in 1900 by the French and for a second time in 1930, again with the help of the French.
We finished the tour off with a Capaccino and a pastry in street café, how very European of us but yum yum.
That evening we watched the Sunset by the Mekong River and shopped in the Night market..
Friday 7th December
Buddha Park This is 23km outside Vientiane Catch the no 14 bus from the central bus station which unbeknown to us takes people to the Loas/Thai border crossing (Friendship Bridge). From here you change to a local chicken bus which is very run down and dusty, this takes you in a 30minutes drive along dust and mud roads in the middle if nowhere to the Buddha Park. The ark is very strange, a little run down but worth a visit. It consists of many concrete statutes of Buddhist and Hindu Buddha of all shapes and sizes set in a park alongside a river, there is a a small café.
On the journey back there was a accident between a car and a lorry, nothing serious only minor the chaos it caused was massive. Firstly neither vehicle was moved and was blocking the single lane dirt road. There were lorries and cars passing from all angles and in the end a total standstill. Eventually our bus driver got out and tried to direct traffic to get it moving, but unfortunately he had no idea and ended making the situation worse with our bus in the middle. We eventually got free and continued our journey back.
Lunch at the market within the Central bus station - very cheap and very tasty noodle soup.
Dinner at same restaurant as last night as we loved the host, she was all of 4ft tall with bags of character. See the photo.
Vang Vieng Saturday 8th & Sunday 9th December
Bus at 10am should take 3 hours but we are late as expected. We arrive at 1:30pm get to the hotel at 1:45pm. Loas Haven Hotel and Spa, looks posh from the outside with lots of white marble on the inside it needs a little TLC and corners have been cut. It is owned by a Father and Son who both speak excellent English, they are very welcoming and knowledgeable.
Vang Vieng for many travelers is simply a piece of heaven on earth. Surrounded by scenic landscape ranging from mountains to rivers and limestone cliffs to rice fields, this small and scenic town offers a long list of interesting attractions. The Nam Song River is where you will witness the famous tubing - and young travellers sitting in large inner tubes floating downriver is a common sight in Vang Vieng.
Tubing down the river Song. We have read all about this activity and have been warned that now the bars are closed down along the river it is much safer. The water is cold but refreshing, the rapids are timid but the float down river is a nice relaxing way to spend 90 mins. Te river Song flows below the mountains so the journey is picturesque especially as the sun starts to go down. The tubing is famed with backpackers because there were several bars along each side of the river and people would stop and refresh themselves, rumour has it that drugs were also readily available too, so not a healthy mix with deep water of the river. The police have recently closed down the bars ad indeed still stand on guard of many because there have been several accidents and deaths. People in the know bring alcohol with them in carrier bags, which I must admit a couple of cold beers while floating away would have been a nice idea.
Dinner and so to bed as we have another long journey ahead of us tomorrow.
Luang Prabang Sunday 9th to Wednesday 12 th December
Bus leaves at 11am takes 8 hours to Luang Prabang. We are picked up from the hotel at 10.30, the bus leaves 30 mins late. It is comfy with air conditioning and plenty of leg room which makes a nice change. The journey is over the mountains, so lots of scenery and scary views as the road a t times is a single line track. It passes many hill tribe villages, which is great to see how people really live. We stop twice, once for lunch and once for comfort - or to enable the bus driver to buy his vegetables and groceries from a local farmer.
Arrive at Bus station for 6:30pm, early very good considering the journey.
The ancient town of Luang Prabang situated in northern Laos, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Considered by many travellers and writers as being the heart of Laotian culture, the tiny town is encircled by mountains and is 700 metres above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Here visitors are subjected to an inflamed economic bubble that does not apply to the rest of the country. Being Laos' premier tourist destination and (arguably) Southeast Asia's most beautiful spot.
Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until King Phothisarat moved the administrative seat to Vientiane in 1545. Regardless, it has continued to overlook Vientiane as the destination of choice with its amalgamation of crumbling French architecture, glistening temples and extensive natural beauty. Even the hardest of hearts would have a struggle not to warm to the place. The town's entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to over 33 Wats (temples), on the tourist trail. This former Royal capital still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning in Laos and is the perfect location for spiritual contemplation.
Cascading waterfalls, scaling peaks and the milky-brown waters of the Mekong River provide ample opportunity to swim, climb and sail your way through Luang Prabang. It is only as recent as 1989 that Laos opened up to tourism and the country that had previously been cut off from the rest of Southeast Asia developed a small but steady economy, based on tourism and regional trade. This small and gentle town where most locals are asleep by 22:00 is now one of the richest and most visited provinces in Laos. It's one of the few places where you feel that this is the genuine article and one that retains its unique ambiance.
We take a Tuk Tuk to Khmmany Inn No2. Looks like a backpacker hotel, which is not how it is explained on the website. When we arrive the owner takes a look at our passports and asks if we need a quiet room, she then explains that we can go round the corner to the sister hotel. The room here is very posh and spacious. We are confused and do not sleep well.
Monday 10th December
In the morning after breakfast of bread and jam we go back to original hotel to ask what is happening. She explains that the hostal has an annexe which has a separate listing as Khammany Hotel 2, but when we look it is all part of the same building which is very big and has the possibility to be very noisy. We check out and look elsewhere. We find Nirasim Guest house, which is near the river but in a trad Loas style house with only 4 bedrooms. It is basic but clean and the owner is welcoming. It is also considerably cheaper.
We have lunch by the Mekong River.
The majority of the city's sights can be reached on foot, so getting a map and making your way to the many temples (33 to be exact) is a good way to soak up the surroundings and observe the way of the Lao people, and the large monk community. The wonder of the ancient temples is apparent at first glance; the gentle and unassuming nature of the locals, given the chance, will also leave a lasting impression.
Visit Wat Xieng Thong - A symbol of great historic importance, this magnificent masterpiece is characteristic of the Luang Prabang style and features an elaborate tree of life mosaic, intricately carved walls, rare Buddhist deities and a 12-metre high funeral carriage. Also known as the 'Golden Tree Monastery', Wat Xieng Thong acts as a gateway to Luang Prabang as it is strategically situated close to where the Mekong joins the Nam Khan River.
This site is famous as the location for the coronation of Lao kings and as an important gathering place for significant annual festivities. The original temple was created in 1560 under the royal instruction of King Setthathirath and narrowly missed invasion on several occasions, nevertheless time took hold and much-needed remodelling took place during the 1960s. The temple still remains in its original form with repairs undertaken to the roof, and gold leaf gilding and gold lacquering restoration added to the walls and entrance.
Sunset at Wat Phusi - Rising 150 metres above the centre of town, Mount Phousi cuts a distinctive figure on the Luang Prabang skyline. The hill is popular as a place to watch the sun rise or set over the Mekong River. From the summit you can enjoy a spectacular 360 degree outlook across the city and its many temples, and out over the surrounding landscape to the mountains in the distance. Count on spending a couple of hours for the climb and descent, with several stops to see the temples, rest under the shady trees and admire the magical views.
We climb the 355 steep steps to reach the Wat at the top of the hill, but it is worth it to see get beautiful photos of the Mekong River and the sunset. It gets very busy and people jostle for position on the rocks etc. Glad we got here early and managed to bag a seat.
Halfway up the hill is the Wat Tham Phousi shrine, which features a big-bellied Buddha nestled in a grotto and a reclining Buddha. At the top of Mount Phousi is the golden Wat Chomsi, which was built in 1804.
Tonight we visit the night market, which is amazing because it occupies the main street which is in full operation until 5pm at night and then is transformed into the market with stalls on each side and running for several hundred meters. We have dinner at Food Street alongside the Market - as much as you can pile on your plate for 10,000Kip - very cheap.
Tuesday 11th December
We waited at the National Museum/Royal Palace to visit but there was a VIP visiting so it was closed for the day.
Walked along the River had lunch at lovely restaurant that tables overlooking the river, beautiful view. We had home made pumpkin soup, a veg sandwich and then fresh home baked choc chip cookies. We watched the locals build a bamboo Bridge across the river that is only in use through the summer months because it gets flooded during the rainy season. This is such a peaceful place with lots of historic buildings.
Dinner at food market with a few beers.
Wednesday 12th December
Planning and chilling day.
Late afternoon we met an English couple Alex and Rosie and we chatted for a while. They have just arrived so we offer to take them to the market and show them some cheap eats. They are great company and very entertaining. We go back to the hotel and have several beers, before we know it it is 3.30am and we are all very merry.
Thursday 13th December
Flight from Luang Prabang to Chaing Mai at 13:10.
Lunag Prubang airport has to be one of the smallest we have been to on this trip. It is also very casual check in. They are doing lots of building work so I am sure the airport will not remain this informal for long. The plane is also small and a little bumpy, thanks goodness it is a short flight.
We had originally looked at getting the bus to the border staying overnight and then a bus to Chiang Mai, but as this is a mountainous journey and a very long journey and can take anything up 18hours. I think flying although relatively expensive was the right choice.
Although we had limited time in Loas we loved this country and it makes our list of countries to revisit. The people are proud, charming, friendly people. It has a relaxed feel and not over touristy. Although Luang Prabang seems to be the most touristy area it is not yet spoilt and manages to retain it's charm and laid back feel.