This post is part of a series called Itineraries. In this series I document the itinerary which we used when visiting a country in summary.
When Visited: February 2011
Duration: 15 days
Laos Itinerary Day 1: Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos
There’s always a frisson of excitement about crossing a border. Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos was a little higher than “frisson” on the excitement scale, it was an adventure. We sat on our packs in a low boat. We gambled on being able to buy visas at the post on the other side and on there being a functioning ATM and somewhere to stay in the village on the other side. All part of your average backpacking day. Funny how navigating a day like that can make a simple supper in a no-frills cafe feel like a meal fit for a king.
Laos Itinerary Day 2-4: Gibbon XP, Huay Xai
I’d read about the Gibbon Experience months before and we were all looking forward to spending three days in treehouses, zip-lining and observing gibbons in the jungle. We didn’t plan on losing our child in the jungle but even though that made for a drama-filled initial 24 hours, the rest of our Gibbon Experience was excellent. It’s definitely worth checking out if you plan on visiting this part of Laos.
Laos Itinerary Day 4-5: Boat to Luang Prabang (o/n at Pak Beng)
The single lane roads between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang are barely paved (fairly common in Northern Laos). The boat trip down the Mekong is reputedly a better transit option. As I described in my post on the slow boat to Luang Prabang we had one day where this was decidedly untrue and a second day lazily and comfortably enjoying the scenery. On balance I recommend this boat trip but be aware that over-crowding may be a problem.
Laos Itinerary Day 5-8: Luang Prabang
Unfortunately we were all sick in Luang Prabang. We didn’t really enjoy our stay here nor get to appreciate the beauty of this old capital of Laos – but we do have some lovely photos from a day-long ramble about the old town. We’ll just have to go back. Obviously if I’m saying that it’s worth keeping on your itinerary.
Laos Itinerary Day 9: Vang Vieng
Initially I thought we’d stay a day or two in Vang Vieng – enough time to break the journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and maybe have some fun rafting or inner tubing on the river. That was before I saw Vang Vieng for myself, in the flesh, if you will. It is a hedonistic heaven or hell (depending on your perspective). When Murph and I went for dinner in a basic restaurant on the main street we were given the menu (for food) and the “special menu” on which there was both weed and opium in quantities large and small. It made the $3 whiskey buckets look tame. I’m just glad I didn’t go there until I was over 40 and I’ve already told my kids they’re not allowed visit, ever (or at least until they’re over 40 too). We arrived in the evening and got the first available bus onwards the next day. You may choose to do the same or not – to each their own.
Laos Itinerary Day 10-12: Vientiane
In Vientiane we stayed at the Villa Lao Traditional House guesthouse. We felt like guests welcomed into someone’s home. The rooms are fairly basic but the gardens are carefully tended and are a true pleasure to relax in especially since there aren’t many green spaces in Vientiane. Unfortunately we were all still sick for most of the time we were in Vientiane so we didn’t explore the city much. We did eat at the street food markets by the river which has a great ambiance and tasty, budget-friendly food. Murph and CAM took cooking classes at the guesthouse: they cooked, BigB and I ate :). We stepped into a time machine and went back to the 1960s for a few hours, uh, sorry, visited the Lao National Museum – definitely a novel experience for our geeky millennial children.
Day 11: Travel day to Phonsavan (Plain of Jars)
Like I said, the roads in Northern Laos are pretty bad. It’s 240 miles (380km) from Vientiane to Phonsavan. The journey is supposed to take 5 hours – and that’s after the hour-and-a-half this bus took to leave the city limits. If you plan to follow this route, pack your patience.
Laos Itinerary Day 12-13: Phonsavan
Our two days in Phonsavan were worth the effort it took to get there. On one level this was an unparalleled educational experience: we all learned about the Secret War and the way Laos was incessantly bombed during this time. We visited the MAG offices in Phonsavan and learned about their de-mining work. We were not very impressed by the Plain of Jars but we had a completely unorthodox “day tour” around the surrounding areas visiting some villages and local craftswomen which more than made up for that.
Laos Itinerary Day 14-15: Sam Neua
I planned our visit to Sam Neua for two reasons: firstly because it looked like a “more interesting” way to get from Vientiane to Hanoi (hah! what was I thinking!) and secondly as a continuation of the “Laos during the Vietnam War” edu-tour. Sam Neua was where the Pathet Lao hid during that time. Over twenty thousand people lived in the Viengxay cave complex for seven years. There complex included offices, a hospital, living quarters and even a “theater”. It was an utterly riveting place to visit even if it felt like we’d stepped back into the 1960s with the abundance of Cold War references, memorabilia and the general look and feel of the place.
Just from my own observations it seemed that Laos was the least developed country we visited during our year of travel. The people are indeed wholehearted and kind-hearted (the local brew is Beerlao, “the beer of the wholehearted people”) and the scenery, with broad river valleys through jagged karst mountains and pristine jungle territories, makes you want to find your inner Ansel Adams. As I wrote the itinerary above I realized that what with being sick and generally being focused on educational opportunities, we really didn’t get to see the best of Laos. We’ll just have to go back.