We made our way to Laos from Siem Reap by way of Bangkok. As I mentioned in my previous post, we had originally wanted to go straight from SR to the 4,000 Islands in Laos and then make our way North to Vientiane, where we would be getting our work visas, but a closed road forced us to change our plans.
After a 9 hour bus ride, we had a few hours in Bangkok before heading back out for an 11 hour overnight train to Vientiane. We headed back to our hotel on Khao San Road (after picking up our new favorite ice coffee drink from 7-11) and spent that time catching up on emails. Before we knew it, it was time to hit the road once again. We grabbed a taxi to the train station, had a quick dinner (even the food at the train station in Thailand is really good, and of course, cheap), and then got on our train.
Our school had provided us with a step-by-step guide to getting our work visas. The first step told us that we should buy a second class train ticket, fan only, so that’s exactly what we did. The train seemed nice enough except for the fact that it had started to storm right before we left. Somehow our seats were the only ones to get wet… And when I say wet, I mean there were puddles on and around both of our seats. Luckily, right before we left, a man came and wiped down our seats AND turned our seats into beds complete with mattress pads, sheets, pillows, and blankets. After seeing this great bed, I thought I was in for a pretty decent night’s sleep. And then I saw a cockroach crawling along the wall next to my bed… and then another. We’ve dealt with our fair share of bugs on this trip (you might remember that we spent at least an hour killing mosquitoes in our mosquito nets before we went to sleep in the Amazon) but cockroaches are just too much for me. I hardly slept a wink all night. Dave said he didn’t see any bed bugs however and thus had a relatively good night’s sleep.
Suffice to say, I was very happy to see the sun come up in the morning. This was not our first overnight train/bus on our trip (and it wouldn’t be the last), but this one was the toughest for me. We still had a few hours until we reached Vientiane, and according to our visa packet, we had to be at the Royal Thai Embassy by 10:30am in order to get our applications in for the day. We had planned it so that we got in on Thursday morning and would be able to pick up our visas on Friday afternoon, before the weekend and before heading off for the rest of our trip in Laos.
Well, our train was supposed to arrive at 8:30am, and even with this timing, we knew we’d have to book it through customs in order to make it to the embassy on time. At 8:30 exactly, we pulled into a train station, which I thought was our stop. It wasn’t. We asked how much longer and were told that our train was delayed for TWO HOURS! Well, I guess I had slept more than I thought, because I definitely didn’t remember stopping for two whole hours at any point during the night. According to our visa packet, there was no chance for us to make the visa office. But, we read that the office was actually open until noon, so we felt that we still had a slight chance. In the [likely] chance that we didn’t make it in time, however, in true Stave form, we came up with a backup plan. We’d still spend the day and night in Vientiane, as planned, and would drop off our passports and visa applications first thing the next morning (Friday). We’d make sure it was ok to leave them at the visa office for the whole week, and pick them up the following Friday after our travels. We were a little worried about traveling through Laos for the week without our passports, but from what we read, we would be given a receipt from the Thai Embassy which would serve as our passport throughout Laos. We figured as long as we weren’t leaving the country, which we weren’t, we should be ok. But if they told us we had to pick up our passports the next business day (Monday if we missed the Thursday dropoff), we’d be stuck in Vientiane for the whole weekend which would likely mean we wouldn’t have time to travel throughout Laos:(.
We finally got in to Vientiane at 10:30, and I don’t think two people have ever made it through any border crossing so fast. Again, we followed the directions in our visa packet to get a tuk tuk from the train station to the Thai border crossing, got a bus from there to cross over into Laos, filled out our Laos visa applications, waited the 10 minutes for them to process our visas, finished going through customs, and then got another tuk tuk to take us to the Royal Thai Embassy. We stepped out of our tuk tuk at 11:35, thinking that we had defied all odds and actually made it in time to get our visas, only to find out that the office had closed 5 minutes before. “We thought you closed at noon,” we tried to argue, but to no avail. A man with a folding table set-up next to the embassy told us that he could help us get our visa applications into the office that day for an extra charge. We thought this promising until he told us the extra charge would be three times the price of our visa (about $200 pp instead of $70). We maybe would have thought about it until we confirmed that we could in fact drop off our applications on Friday and pick them up anytime the following week (ie, we didn’t have to pick them up on Monday, the next business day). Once we confirmed that, we said thanks but no thanks to the expedited offer and went to find another tuk tuk to take us to the city center. Plan B was now in effect: we would drop off our passports/visa applications first thing the next morning (Friday), travel through Laos Saturday through mid-week, and then pick up our passports/work visas Thursday or Friday before heading back to Bangkok.
After walking down the very cute main street in Vientiane, we settled on a hostel for $16 a night (we got it down from $19). By this time, I was very tired, very hungry, and all around just not in the best mood (no sleep, the failed visa attempt, and I had hit my head getting into our tuk tuk after spending ten minutes arguing with the driver about our fare to the city center). Luckily, we quickly found pretty much the best cure ever for my bad mood – a pastrami sandwich.
When we first found out that we had to come to Vientiane, we didn’t think there would be much there. But, we got excited pretty quickly as soon as we read that actually, the Laos capital is a big foodie destination with about every type of cuisine imaginable, and specializing in bakeries with MYO (make your own) sandwiches, bagels, and more. And that’s exactly what we found for lunch. We made our own foot-long pastrami sandwich, complete with whole wheat bread. In the almost three months that we’ve been traveling, we have had some of the best food that I’ve ever had, but we haven’t really had a proper sandwich. And we most definitely have seen no sign of whole wheat bread, anywhere. Now it was no Katz’s Deli, but it was a pretty great sandwich nonetheless. Sometimes when you’re not having the best day (yes this even happens when you’re on the trip of a lifetime), all it takes is something that reminds you of home to get you out of your funk. And that’s all it took for me. We also got a side of homemade chili to go with our sandwich.
After a great lunch, we set off to explore the rest of town. We walked along the main street and down the Mekong river, and then our sleepless night on the train started to hit us. So, we did the only thing we could think of to keep us going. Stopped for two bubble teas, our favorite new snack of the trip. After this, we were re-energized and continued on with our exploration. When Lonely Planet said that Vientiane had every type of cuisine imaginable, they were not kidding (they also said that if you came to Laos expecting to lose a few pounds, you would be sorely disappointed – they were right about that too. I’m already realizing that this whole section of my post is about food). We found Italian, Mexican, Tapas, BBQ, bakeries, sushi, fondue, and even a Belgium restaurant. It was pretty amazing. Even with all of these choices though, we saw a great-looking street side grill serving tons of different kinds of meat, whole Mekong fish, and other delicious Laos specialties, and we decided that would be our dinner spot (though we were very tempted by the fish and chips/burger restaurant next door and also the chain pizza restaurant down the street). But we figured our 1st dinner in Laos had to be an authentic Laos meal, especially after our pastrami sandwich/chili lunch.
We went back to our hotel for a few hours for some much needed rest before heading back out for a delicious dinner of ribs and a whole Mekong fish (I love the whole fish dishes, but Dave doesn’t love them as much as he can’t stand fishing through the bones to get to the meat – understandable). We ended our night with another walk through town and headed to bed for a much needed good night’s sleep.
We woke up early the next morning to take care of our visas. We took a nice walk to the Thai Embassy, and spent about an hour there filling out our applications, cutting down our passport photos, making copies of our Laos visas (our visa packet did not mention that we needed to have copies of these!!), and double/triple checking to make sure we would be able to travel throughout Laos without our passports and that it was ok to pick up our passports the following Friday. Both were ok. We felt great that we had finally taken care of this, and now we were ready to continue on with our Laos vacation. We got on a 2pm bus to Vang Vieng, which we had been looking forward to for about a year, ever since reading an article about this famous and crazy river tubing/party destination. The article referred to it as the “most unlikely party town in the world,” and said that in 2011 thirty tourists died on the river, mostly from hitting their heads on rocks while cliff jumping or zip lining over the river while intoxicated. We heard it had tamed down a bit in recent years, but nonetheless were super excited to see what the hype was all about.
On our 4 hour bus (which actually turned out to be a van) ride, we started chatting to two guys, one from Boston, one from Arizona (they were step brothers) who had voluntarily moved to Israel to join the army. Mark was just finishing his service and Nate had finished a couple years ago and was now attending University in Israel. They had spent a month in India (they went to Cashmire, which is up North in the Himalayas. They had a much different experience in India than we did and got us thinking that maybe we’d give it another shot someday – though definitely not for a while and definitely not in another big city there). We spent pretty much the entire van ride exchanging stories with them and as we arrived, we made a plan to meet up after getting settled.
Nate and Mark met us at our guesthouse (we had all tried to stay at the same place, but their budget was 200 baht for the night, and we paid 280 for our room, or $9. They ended up paying 240 for theirs down the street). We set out to find a bar with some Lao Lao, which we read was the famous Vang Vieng whiskey drink, which they serve in buckets. We stopped at a few places and were told that buckets of alcohol were actually now illegal in VV. Last year there had been a major crackdown in the city because of all the deaths that had been occurring from people partying too hard on the river. We knew that out of the 100 bars that used to be along the river, there were now only about 4, but I guess drink buckets had been outlawed too. We knew our experience would not be as crazy as it would have been a couple of years ago, but as Dave liked to say, the 4 bars along the river was 2 or 3 more than we needed.
Anyway, we found a place to make us some Lao Lao drinks (but just in regular glasses) and parked ourselves there for a while. We ordered our drinks with redbull, and our waiter warned us that the Asian redbull had given him very bad stomach aches so he stayed away from it. Just as we had done when a waiter in India told us that ordering the Rogan Josh and the Butter Chicken was too much, we told our waiter that we’d be fine. Bring on the redbull. Redbull in Asia by the way sells for 10 cents a bottle.
By the time we left the bar, it was getting late and we were all hungry. We walked through the town and found restaurant after restaurant with tables set up so that people could lay down facing big screen TVs in front of the room that were all playing episodes of Friends. Literally restaurant after restaurant was filled with drunk/hungover tourists, eating greasy American food, and laying down watching Friends. Or maybe South Park in one or two cases. I have never seen anything like this, but I guess after a full day of drinking and rafting, this is probably exactly the kind of night you need. Why the city chose Friends as their official show, I have no idea. If it were my choice, I’d probably have gone with 90210. God knows how many hours I spent laying in bed hungover and watching that (ahem Jamie), but I guess Friends is a little lighter.
We vowed to have our dinner at a place where we could lounge and watch Friends the following night after rafting, but for tonight, we weren’t quite ready to lounge, so instead, we grabbed burgers from a street stand and ate sitting down on the curb. Unlike Vietiane, which is a foodie mecca with every type of cuisine imaginable, Vang Vieng is more of a drunk food mecca, which every restaurant and street stand selling burgers, sandwiches, pancakes, and anything else that you could want before, during, or after a day of drinking.
After dinner, we headed back to Nate and Mark’s place to hang for a bit, made plans to meet up in the morning for a day of tubing, and then called it a night.
We woke up in the morning, and Dave had a horrible stomach ache. He didn’t know how he was going to make it drinking and tubing all day, but as we had been looking forward to this place and activity for pretty much a year, he was a trooper and dragged himself out of bed. Once again, a Stave was down for an activity that we had been very excited for (I was sick at Machu Picchu, Dave was sick at the Taj Mahal, and now this). Why does this always happen to us! And then we remembered… The redbull! Why don’t we ever listen when a local tells us that something is going to make us sick?!
We met Nate and Mark for breakfast only to learn that Mark had been up all night with a stomach ache too. We did the math. Mark and Dave each had 2 Lao Lao/Redbulls. They ran out of redbull after that so I had my second drink with coke, and Nate just stuck to one drink. It was all making sense.
We ordered some eggs for breakfast, which we thought might help. Each of our dishes came out with not only a huge plate of eggs, but also on the side, an entire warm baguette. We had read that all of Laos had great bakeries/bread and we could now see this was true. Maybe VV wasn’t all drunk/hungover food, after all! Unfortunately, Dave could hardly eat half of his meal, but either way, he was determined to have a fun day tubing.
After breakfast, we found the place to rent tubes from and hopped in a big tuk tuk down to the river. Half way there, our tuk tuk broke down. We thought we might never make it to tubing, but our driver hopped out of his car and within 10 minutes, he had fixed the problem himself. (NOTE: I was told by everyone that this was an impressive feat, of course, I know nothing about cars, so I would have had no idea). A few minutes later, we were on the river on the way to our first bar.
On the river, it was the four us, and a group of about 10 other people. We could imagine what this must have been like a couple of years ago with hundreds of people floating down the river (and we definitely were able to see how dangerous it could have been). Compared to that, our experience was pretty tame and relaxing, but the scenery was beautiful, and we still had a few bars to hit, so we didn’t really mind. The 1st bar was actually at the launching point for the tubing. We decided to skip it since Dave was still feeling a little queezy and we were told we had to be back by 6pm (we started at 2pm and were told the whole trip typically takes 3 hrs, including stops at the bars).
We stopped at the 2nd bar about 15 minutes later (and by stopped, I mean we got reeled in by the people working there. They threw out a fishing pole-like contraption to us and pulled us in on our rafts), and this place was amazing. Complete with pretty much every bar/drinking game imaginable (beer pong, flip cup, bocce ball, basketball, ping pong, to name a few), there were also tables to dance on, hula hoops laying all over the place, and awesome areas for lounging. Now this was paradise! Whoever came up with this idea of building bars along a river that you float down and stop along the way to drink and play drinking gams was pretty much a genius. We could have spent all day at this bar, but we decided to keep going as it was only our 1st bar (the 2nd bar on the river).
Unfortunately, we tried to stop at the 3rd bar, but there was no one to reel us in this time and other than Dave, the rest of us weren’t able to paddle our way in, so we missed it. Dave was not very happy with us, but we really did try to get there (actually, I don’t think Nate/Mark really tried, but I did, I promise!). We were told there were only 3-4 bars on the river these days so Dave was particularly upset because we may have missed the final bar. But fortunately, after 20 more minutes of tubing or so, we came across another bar, or what we thought was another bar..
We pulled our rafts onto shore and walked up the staircase to what we thought would be a bar similar to the earlier bar we had been to, but it actually ended up just being someone’s house. Instead of buying drinks at the bar (there was no bar here), they offered us shots of their homemade Lao Lao. This time, we didn’t have a mixer (or a chaser for that matter, and this stuff is STRONG! 80 proof to be exact, 40% alcohol). We each took a few shots and decided that we loved this house/bar! They only charged us about a dollar for all of our shots combined (actually more like 80 cents) and the plate of chips they had brought out for us. Talk about Laos hospitality!
We floated the rest of the way down the river and got out to return our tubes. We were surprised to find yet another bar at the end, and since we had some time before we had to return our rafts at 6pm, Dave and I decided to stay and have a few last drinks. Nate and Mark opted out and we planned to all meet up the next morning to rent motor bikes and head to the caves. The last bar had beds overlooking the river/mountains so it was a perfect spot to watch the sunset, which we did.
After we returned our rafts, Dave and I scouted the area for the perfect place for dinner. Don’t worry, we kept our promise to ourselves and found a place where we could lounge and watch Friends all night if we wanted to. We had a burger, a chicken parm sandwich, and a full disk of Friends for dinner and it was the perfect end to a great day!
We got up early and went to pick up Nate and Mark for our day of caving. We got to their place and Nate told us that Mark had been up all night with a fever and was still really sick, so they were out 😦
Dave and I rented a motor bike for $5 for the day, got a map, filled up with gas, and we were on our way. It was so much fun on the bike driving through the beautiful scenery (Laos was much more beautiful than we thought it would be) and Dave was surprisingly good at riding it.
We got to the turnoff for the first waterfall and turned onto a completely unpaved and gravel-filled road. Probably not the best terrain for motor biking. It took us a while to find the first cave. There were very few signs and forks in the road everywhere. At one point, we turned onto a dirt road that was pretty much just wide enough for our bike to get through, and instead of leading to the cave, like we thought it would, it led to someone’s house and we had to turn around. Dave was starting to get very frustrated, but I was enjoying the scenery and the ride too much to care that we hadn’t gotten to our destination yet. And then, we had our first fall of the day. We were stopping to ask for directions, and in the process of stopping, our bike kind of just tipped over. I managed to jump off of it, but Dave got a little scratched up. Luckily, he was ok though. And most importantly, no damage to the moped.
Finally, we got to Tham Phu Kham cave. At the bottom, there was an awesome lagoon where people were rope swinging and jumping off of a tree into the water. We decided to hit the lagoon after the cave.
We climbed up a very steep staircase and into the cave. It was huge and awesome! For some reason though, we had only brought one of our head lamps with us, so it was pretty hard to see and make our way through, but we managed (though not without getting covered in mud). The cave wasn’t as good as the ones we had been to in Belize a couple years ago, but it was still pretty awesome. We got near the end of the cave and our headlamp started to die. Of course. We wanted to go further, but considering the fact that there was no one else around us, we thought it was best to turn around so we didn’t get stuck in the dark.
We made it out of the cave and back to the lagoon for some rope swinging/tree jumping. Dave went through the obstacle course first. He did the rope swing, then the lower tree branch, and then finally, the upper, very high tree branch. I went next, but skipped the upper tree branch. It was just a little too high for me. But, the lagoon was awesome!
We got back on our bikes and headed back down the gravel road to the next cave. We had almost made it out of the gravel when we had our second fall of the day. This time, we were going around a corner, downhill, towards a river, and a big car/SUV came around the corner toward us, so Dave tried to stop, and again, our bike lost balance and tipped over. This time, we both fell and got pretty scratched up (though Dave got it much worse than me). And, as we picked up our bike, we saw that one of our rear view mirrors had come off and the glass had shattered.
When we were renting our bikes earlier that morning, the man almost wouldn’t let us rent them because we didn’t have our passports with us. To make up for that, we convinced him to rent us the bikes by giving him: 1) the receipt we had gotten from the Thai Embassy which we need to pick up our passports, 2) our bus ticket out of Vang Vieng that evening, and 3) 3,000 baht, or $100. We were very worried because we hadn’t signed anything telling us what would happen if we damaged the bike. We knew that it wouldn’t cost $100 to repair the mirror, but this guy already had our money and he could probably keep it and we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
So, we did the only thing we could think of. We drove into town and found a repair shop to try to have the mirror fixed ourselves. We tried a couple of places, but no one had the exact mirror that we had broken. Instead, we decided that we’d have to get two new mirrors so that they’d match. We thought it might cost us a few hundred baht ($20-30), but we were very pleasantly surprised when the man told us that it would be 30,000 kip for BOTH mirrors (we know, it’s a lot of different currencies to keep track of), but this was essentially $4, or $2 per mirror, including installation. Amazing! Coincidentally, this was the same price as it cost to rent the moped for the day – $4. We rented a single moped, which Dave drove, while I rode in the back.
The one hitch was that the mirrors we got were not exactly the same as the one we had broken. The one we had broken was probably a little nicer, but we had a plan for returning the bike. First, we would do a “fly by” of the bike place to see if all of the mirrors on the bikes he was renting were like the one we had broken (red). If so, then we’d probably need to come clean from the outset. But in the hopeful chance that some were black like the replacements we bought, then we would make sure we got our $100/bus ticket/passport receipts back before deciding whether to come come clean. Either way, we kept the one good mirror that we hadn’t broken in the backpack so if the shop owner was stiff, at least we could say we only broke 1 mirror, and had provided him with 2 comparable replacements.
After we got the bike fixed, I was ready to be done with the motor bike for the day (and forever), but Dave wanted to go to the other cave. So, we did. This time though, we stopped once the road went from paved to gravel and we walked the rest of the way. Luckily, this cave was much closer. The second cave also had a little lagoon at the bottom, but no rope swing or tree to jump from this time. This time, the cave also had a paved walkway and lights going through it (which was good considering our headlamp was dead). Very different than the first cave, but also pretty cool.
When we were ready to head back and return our bike, we did our planned drive by and were very relieved when some of the mirrors were red, some were black, and some were silver! We decided not to say anything and miraculously, the guy didn’t notice! It was a pretty close call when he asked us for the receipt which showed what we left as a deposit. The receipt was in Dave’s bag along with the broken mirror and other good mirror, but somehow Dave managed to pull out the receipt without exposing the mirrors.
We spent the next few hours watching more Friends at a restaurant far enough away from the moped owner so that he couldn’t track us down in the event he discovered our accident in the few hours before we left town, and then started the overnight journey to Luang Prabang. This was our first overnight bus in SE Asia, and we didn’t know what to expect. Nate and Mark described their trip from Bangkok to Vientiane, and it sounded just like our experiences on the overnight buses in South America – double decker bus, snacks and drinks, and chairs that reclined almost all the way down into beds. We loved the S. America buses so if this bus was anything like that (or anything like they described), we would be in good shape for the night.
Well, it wasn’t. We stepped on the bus, and instead of being a tourist bus, like we had taken on all of our other bus trips so far, it was a local bus. No double decker, no snacks, and most importantly, no seats that reclined almost all the way back. This might be another sleepless night.
We managed to fall asleep for a few hours, and then at 2am we were woken up by the Chinese couple across the aisle from us asking us if we were in Luang Prabang. We told them there was no way we were there, we weren’t supposed to arrive until 6am and then we both closed our eyes again. We were woken up a minute later by the bus driver telling us to get up, we were here. We had no idea how it was possible that we arrived in 6 hours, when it was supposed to take 10. More importantly, we were getting into town in the middle of the night with no place to stay (we figured we’d find a guesthouse first thing in the morning when we arrived), and in typical SE Asian form, we were dropped off at a bus station a 10 minute tuk tuk ride from town.
We had no choice but to get in the tuk tuk, and even after much bargaining, we still didn’t get the driver down to what we thought was a fair price (he had a lot of leverage in this situation since it was the middle of the night and there was no way we could walk). We shared the ride with the Chinese couple, and were dropped off in what the driver said was the city center, but we really had no idea, as it was pitch black outside.
We saw a couple of drunk guys getting some late night food, so we asked them where they were staying. Of course, they had no idea. We turned down a street that looked like it had several guesthouses on it. Many of them had gates outside that were locked, so we knocked on the doors of the few that we could get into in the hopes of getting a good deal on a room for the night. In the States, there have been several times where we were going on a road trip and decided to stop for the night 30 minutes or so outside of town. We always stop around midnight or 1am and are able to get a great rate on our room, because at that point, they know that they either sell it to us, or it will remain empty for the night. We thought we’d be able to do the same thing here, but we had no such luck. At every guesthouse we stopped at, we said we would pay upfront for the following two nights, if they would give us this night (just a few hours of sleep) for free, or even half price. No one was having it though and they all seemed to be very scared that their bosses would be mad. So, we picked the cheapest one we found (still only $10/night) and passed out for the rest of the night.
We slept in/relaxed in the morning and at 10am, we headed out for the day. We couldn’t believe it, but somehow, even in the dark at 2am, we had somehow found arguably the cutest street in all of Luang Prabang. And, not only that, it was also 2 blocks from the river and two blocks from the main street in town and the night market. Not bad!
Lonely Planet described Luang Prabang as “possibly SE Asia’s most sophisticated city.” We rented bikes to explore for the day, and after just a quick drive through town, we could already agree that it was definitely the cutest and most charming that we’ve seen so far.
We needed some energy before heading out to explore some of the city’s Wats, and when we found a street packed with sandwich stands, we knew we had found our spot. It kind of reminded us of the steak sandwich food cart street in Buenos Aires that we had eaten an amazing lunch at one day. In both places, every stand on the street was selling literally exactly the same meal. This time, the stands were just much closer together. We decided on one Lao Sandwich (ham, pork, cheese, and chili sauce) and a chicken, avocado, and cheese sandwich. Both were served on the delicious baguettes that we’d been finding all over Laos. I can’t say they compared to the steak sandwiches in BA, but they were still pretty damn good.
After lunch, we biked to Phousi Mountain/Wat Chomsi stupa and climbed the 190 stairs to the top to check out what was supposed to be a beautiful view. As soon as we got up, we started chatting with a couple from Seattle. Both were doctors, the man was retired and the woman was between jobs so they were traveling for a few weeks before she started her next gig. They too loved to travel, in fact, they spend about 7 weeks a year traveling (that’s how much time she has off), and take three 2-week vacations. That doesn’t sound too bad! The man has been trying to convince her to leave her job all together to travel full time, though it didn’t sound like she was ready to do that. She did say though that they were thinking about moving somewhere abroad and working at a hospital. Anyway, they were both very cool and we really enjoyed talking to them. They seemed to love our plan (or so they say) and they told us we have a place to crash if we ever come to Seattle. Little do they know, we will probably take them up on it!
We continued biking around LP, saw all the sights, and then started to check out restaurants for dinner. We thought it’d be nice to eat by the river, so that’s where our search began when we were quickly distracted by a big sign saying “40% Off Wine!” Upon looking closer, the wine at this particular place was still really expensive, but now that the idea was in our head… We found another more reasonable place pretty quickly and noted that Bob and Linda would be proud that we were taking their advice – stopping to smell the roses over a couple glasses of wine on the Mekong River.
We eventually found what we thought would be our restaurant for the night, and once we were satisfied, we headed back to our guesthouse to rest for a few hours.
When we were ready to go out for dinner, we decided that we’d pop over to the night market to check that out before heading to our restaurant on the river. We got to a street filled with fresh fruit and vegetable stands, and decided that must be it. We’d seen people selling jerky everywhere, so when we saw a vendor selling that, we bought a bag to have for a snack over the next couple of days. We thought the jerky stand was the last stand of the night market, and then we turned the corner. What we saw was pretty much the most amazing food market situation either of us had ever seen. Imagine the best looking buffet you’ve ever seen. Ok, now line up about 15 of those next to each other and throw in some stands selling meat (sausages, chicken, whole ducks, whole fish, ribs, etc.), some selling spring rolls, some selling papaya salad, and then still others selling other random items of deliciousness. This is what we were faced with. Not only that, at each of the buffets, you get a plate and can fill it up with as much food as you can pile on, all for 10,000 kip or about $1.50. We were in SE Asian street market food heaven and our dreams of eating on the Mekong were crushed. This is where we’d be spending our dinner hours for the next two nights, no doubt. We feasted like kings for 45,000 kip ($5, one plate from the buffet and 3 types of sausages) and then continued on to explore the rest of the night market.
As amazing as the food section of the market was, the actual market was equally great. There was stand after stand after stand selling paintings, scarves, clothes, and pretty much every other knickknack you could imagine. We walked through the rows and noticed that unlike many of the other markets we’d been to, this market was not that crowded or loud. In fact, there was some very nice music playing in the background and we felt completely relaxed.
Once we had walked through the whole market, twice, we picked up some pumpkin bread for breakfast in the morning and a couple of souvenirs/gifts and then made our way home.
We woke up early for a full day of caves and waterfalls, which LP is supposed to be known for (every tuk tuk in town has a big sign on top of it letting tourists know that they go to both). We had originally thought we would do each on their own day, but then we found a tour that combined them into one. We figured then we could get back to Vietiane a day early to pick up our visas and then back to Bangkok by the weekend.
We booked our tour the day before and started the morning with a 1.5 hour boat ride to the Pak Ou Caves. Our Lonely Planet book told us that we should wear our sneakers, bring our headlamp, and be prepared for some great caving. We were pumped.
The morning started out a little chilly, but the boat ride was beautiful and we both really enjoyed it. Along the way, we stopped at what they call “Whisky Village” for a quick peek around. Well, we quickly found out the reason for the name is that the village is pretty much just rows and rows of vendors selling the famous Laos whisky. There’s a sweet kind and a very strong, not sweet at all kind. We sampled both and bought a small bottle of each before getting back on the boat.
We arrived at the Pak Ou caves, paid the 20,000 kip to get in and first went up to check out the upper cave. We walked in to a big open cave filled with hundreds of little Buddha statues. Very pretty, but after just a few steps, the cave was over. Where was the climbing? What did we need a headlamp and sneakers for? We assumed there must be more in the lower cave. All there was, however, was more of the same. Tons and tons of little golden Buddhas, and a cave that just required a few steps to walk around. What a disappointment. We couldn’t believe we had spent half of our day at this cave, but we figured that at least we enjoyed the boat ride. If anyone is planning to go to LP, we recommend that you definitely skip this one.
We were pretty bummed on the boat ride back, but prayed that the waterfalls in the afternoon would be better. Once we got back to LP, we had a quick lunch and then were picked up by a van for the hour-long ride to the waterfall.
As soon as we arrived, there was a sign telling us it was a one minute walk to the bear rescue center and a five minute walk to the waterfall. We had no idea how they decided to combine these two activities into one place, but it sounded pretty cool to us.
The bear rescue center was pretty much a big enclosure like you’d see at a zoo, filled with tons of bears. When we showed up, there were at least 6 or 7 of them hanging out right in front for us to see. It was pretty cool! We took some pics and then continued on to the waterfall.
We walked along the many beautiful, crystal clear pools heading to the waterfall. We decided we’d try to climb to the top and then do some swimming. This was already way better than the caves.
We took a short, but very steep hike to the top of the beautiful waterfall and then made sure to get back down in enough time for a quick swim. Well, once someone told us that the water was freezing and there were tons of little fish that would bite your feet, I decided I was out. Dave, on the other hand, had to get his rope swinging in, so he still took a dip. It was very funny to hear him shriek as the fish started nibbling at his toes.
By the time he was done swimming, it was about time to head back. We had another hour back to town and by the time we got back we were pretty exhausted from the day. We showered and changed, went back to the market for another amazing buffet dinner (night 2 may have been even better than night 1), and then called it an early night. We had to be up at 5am for our bus ride the next day back to Vientiane.
Our bus was supposed to take 10-14 hours, and we made it in about 11. The first half of the ride was on some of the bumpiest, curviest roads I’ve ever been on. I don’t usually get car sick, but I was not feeling so hot for a lot of the ride. Once we got out of the mountains I was ok, but after 11 hours I was very happy to be back in Vientiane. Dave felt ok on the ride, so he spent some time reading through our Bangkok book and figuring out a bunch of weekends for us for once we were back. After listening to everything he found, I started getting very excited to be back and to start really learning the city.
We decided to try to find a different, less expensive guesthouse than the one we had stayed at during our night in Vientiane a week before. We found a good one with AC and wifi and got settled in our room only to find out that not only did they only have wifi between 9am and 11:30pm, the wifi they had hardly even worked. When you’re traveling and don’t have access to the internet all the time, a hotel with wifi becomes really important. In fact, other than the location of where we stay, that’s probably #1 on our list. So, we got out money back, checked out, and went to find a different place, which turned out to be even cheaper and better.
When we had been in town the week before, we had seen a restaurant with a burger and fish and chips that looked awesome, and we had planned to come back there on our way back through town. Well, the only problem was that we couldn’t find the place again. Luckily, we found another great place and still got our fish and chips and a burger. Vientiane had become the place where we eat all the foods that we miss from home (remember the pastrami sandwich our first day there). I guess when you have every type of cuisine imaginable, that’s easy to do. Plus, we hadn’t seen anywhere in Bangkok yet to get burgers, so we figured we should get our fix now.
We got up in the morning and decided to go for a run along the Mekong River. It was a beautiful morning, and we figured that it would be a good idea to get moving a little bit in between two 11-hour bus rides. We hadn’t gone for a run in a few weeks and it felt great.
Afterwards, we found a place for lunch and it ended up being the place we had wanted to eat at the night before! We wished we had found it for dinner, but we were glad we were at least getting to try it.
Then it was finally time to pick up our visas, the reason for our whole trip. As our packet had instructed us, we got to the Thai embassy early to wait in line and the whole thing went really smoothly. They started handing out the visas at 1:30pm and we were out of there at 1:32. Not bad! I was very relieved to have our passports back in our hands, with our work visas in them.
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing work and waiting for our bus back to Bangkok. We took a van to the border and met a girl that had moved to Bangkok to teach English about a year ago. She gave us tons of tips and even said that she may meet us out on Saturday night at one of the bars we had read about. She also said she has a good friend who teaches law school in Bangkok (something Dave may want to do) and that her parents both work at Cornell in the study abroad department (also something Dave and I have talked about doing). So we were glad to have met her. But unfortunately, as we got out of the van to cross the border, and as we were paying our $1 exit fee, she realized that she lost her wallet. We lent her the dollar to get out of Laos and back into Thailand, but I thought she handled the whole thing surprisingly well, considering the circumstances. She was lucky to get on the bus, as her ticket was also in her wallet!
As I write, we are now on a bus even nicer than the ones we took all over South America (but we only paid $20 for this bus whereas in SA, we paid over $100!). We got on and there were snacks waiting for us in our seat pocket, the chairs are huge, lean all the way back, and even have a massage function, just like the chairs in a nail salon. I could get used to this! I hope to wake up in about 10 hours from now back home in Bangkok!