Northern Laos: A Land of Waterfalls, Booze and Sunsets

On arrival in Luang Prabang, we had no idea what to expect. The only research we’d done about Laos prior to coming away involved watching YouTube videos of people tubing in Vang Vieng (some of them are absolutely hilarious, you have to check them out! Ha!). Luckily, our time aboard the slow boat introduced us to two of Laos main attractions… the beautiful scenery and the boozy party scene.

Looking back, I have fond memories of Laos although during our time there I have to say, after 10 straight days of partying I felt like there wasn’t much else to enjoy. Hindsight is a funny thing though and after sifting through the thousands of travel photos I have, Laos really was bloody gorgeous!

Luang Prabang

We docked in Luang Prabang and headed straight to our hostel with the herd of people we’d manage to convince to book into the same one as us. We stayed at Sabai Sabai which literally translates to “chill chill” but where the days were in fact spent chilling, the nights certainly were not!

Luang Prabang and most bars in Laos in fact have this funny ol thing where they close at 11pm. But where’s a crowd of people to go once everywhere shuts? Surprisingly, a bowling alley… Looking like something straight out of 1950’s America, “The Bowling Alley” is a nightly hotspot for young travellers where you’ll find yourself bumping in to the same faces night after night which makes the whole town feel like one big summer camp. Perhaps the best part about Laos is it’s lax health and safety regulations which allows for half a parking lot to be solely dedicated to letting drunk people shoot bow and arrows into targets for the chance to win free local cigarettes. We all had a go… it’s definitely not safe… but it is a hell of a lot of fun!

During our non-hungover days, we visited the waterfalls which make Luang Prabang so famous. Kuang Si Waterfalls is perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. As there were so many of us, we booked a mini bus and a driver through the hostel to take us to Kuang Si as it worked out cheaper. However, the waterfalls are also accessible via tuk-tuk if you are in a smaller group. Prices range between 30,000 and 40,000 Kip (approx £2.55 – £3.40).

We arrived at the waterfalls quite late and by which time, they had started to get very busy. We did however manage to get in at some great swimming spots and enjoy the refreshing ice blue water cascading down the cliff face. I would recommend spending at least a few hours at Kuang Si as there are many levels to the waterfalls that you can explore. We made the huge climb to the top of the cliffs which was extremely tough but the nutrient rich pool with the rope swing at the top was totally worth it!

Tad Sae is another waterfall we visited and as it is located quite far our of town, we decided to rent scooters from the hostel. This was another highlight of our trip, the freedom of the open road and a little biker, well scooter, gang of eight! The drive to Tad Sae isn’t particularly easy (well done George for keeping us upright!) as the roads in Laos are terrible so I would advise making sure you are confident in riding a scooter before attempting the trip or like me, get your other half to drive! 😉

When you arrive at the little village that precedes the short boat journey needed to reach Tad Sae , you’ll be asked to pay a parking fee, it’s inexpensive at 5,000 Kip (approx 42p) but it is most definitely a scam. We brushed it off because it was so cheap but don’t expect any parking privileges as a result of paying! The cost of the boat ride to the waterfall entrance is 10,000 Kip (approx 85p) and takes around 10 minutes. You are then required to pay an entrance fee of 15,000 Kip (approx £1.27).

Unfortunately, the reserve surrounding the waterfalls is also used as an “Elephant Centre”. I state this in quotation marks as the animals did appear to be treated properly and it was extremely heartbreaking to see uneducated tourists riding the elephants and paying to have photos taken of them standing on the backs of the poor creatures. We do not in any way support this kind of treatment of animals and luckily, the price for the elephant centre was significantly higher than the entrance fee to the park so I think we can safely acknowledge that none of our money went towards the terrible treatment of the animals.

Moving swiftly on, the first waterfall you come to is not that impressive, I’ll be honest! We recommend moving on to the next level where it is much quieter and the pool is much deeper. We spent a long time at this waterfall, jumping from the edges of the falls into the water below.

Luang Prabang was by far our favourite place in Laos as it had everything we wanted: great people, great food, great party scene and the opportunity for amazing adventures!

Vang Vieng

Laos was unforgettable for many reasons and the trip to Vang Vieng being one of them. We organised the journey through the hostel in Luang Prabang and decided to get the 3pm coach/mini bus as we were told it would take around 4 hours to get there… Surprise, surprise it did not.

Now we knew that the roads in Laos were not particularly great but we didn’t expect them not to be built at all on what appeared to be a very busy route. This added to the immense fog that we encountered as we climbed through one of many mountain ranges, made the journey more like 6 hours as well as a long stop at the top of a mountain because the driver couldn’t actually see more than a foot in front of him…

Once we finally arrived, Vang Vieng for us, was nothing but party, party, party. The infamous tubing and main street lined with bars offering free drinks every hour of the night meant we spent a lot of our time drunk or hungover, I’m not going to lie!

Tubing was an experience that I’ll never forget. Mostly because of the panic I felt as it started to go dark and I realised we were only half way down the river! I joke, I joke, we had an amazing time. Advisory note: Start the tubing as early as you can! It may seem a bit silly to start drinking at 9am but honestly, you need a full day! We didn’t anticipate how far the route down the river is. So what should have been a leisurely float, quickly turned in to a mad paddle to the finish line as the sun began to set!

There are only a few bars left open and unfortunately we only made it to two due to the sun going down! But they were both brilliant. The first bar is literally across the water from the starting point, so a nice easy float to get you started! As you near the bar, an array of people are stood at the dock waiting to haul you in with ropes. Once you’ve caught one, you’ll be pulled in to the dock and the party begins! You’re allowed to carry alcohol whilst you’re travelling down the river but you will have to hand it in once you get into the bars. Surprisingly, ours was still there when we left!

Vang Vieng is surrounded by beauty and I absolutely loved waking up every day and looking out over the river and the mountains. One small regret I have is not exploring more whilst we were there, as I have heard from some of the people we travelled with, how beautiful the countryside is around the little party town.

Vientiane

Our final stop in Laos was the capital, Vientiane. Much like the name suggests, the city is full of nods to it’s invasion by France. Even the street signs are exactly the same as those you would find amongst the streets of Paris!

One of my highlights of Vientiane included the night market along the Mekong river. Standing on the banks looking out across to Thailand was such a great round off to our trip since Thailand and the Mekong were both where we started our journey to Laos. The night market had such a buzz to it and even had little stalls where you could win prizes like at the fun fair! George won me a Jerry teddy from the tv show Tom & Jerry, although to this day, I have no idea what happened to him! I think he fell off my backpack when we flew to Vietnam, sorry Jerry, how sad!

During our time in Vientiane, we also made the extremely long journey from our hotel to one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks – the Patuxai Monument. As we walked the streets in the midday heat, we came across so many cute shops full on antiques and unique gifts but much like the rest of our travels, we had to refrain from getting too attached to anything as we were unable to carry much else in our giant rucksacks! Along the way, we also stumbled upon what from distance looked like a mound of grass but as we got closer saw that it was actually much more.

That Dam Black Stupa (yes, we also found a lot of comedic value in the name) is one of the oldest monuments in Vientiane. Previously believed to be covered in gold plates, the stupa now stands (just about…) as a brick structure. Years of neglect have meant that plants and vines have taken over but I actually think it was one if the prettier sights in Vientiane. I love it when nature just takes over!

We finally made it to the Patuxai Monument also known as the “oriental Arc du Triomphe” and you can certainly see why! The closer you get, the more underwhelming it becomes in my opinion. Much like a lot of Laos, the monument is also in a half-built kind of state with not much sign of it being completed. There is an entrance fee to climbing the monument but we felt more appreciative of it from below as there isn’t really much to see from above, mostly just the main boulevard which straddles the monument itself.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I feel like I am much more appreciative of our time in Laos now I have left. At the time, despite having some of the best few weeks of our trip, I felt like there wasn’t much more to Laos other than the touristy party scene but on reflection, Laos was probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and I feel so lucky that I got to see such wonderful scenery and oh my god, not forgetting those incredible sunsets!

So if you’re like us and aren’t particularly planning to go to Laos, take the chance, enjoy the boat ride and make some incredible memories in a beautiful country.

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