Laos Part 2 – Caves, Freaky Turtles and a Dodgey Sunset Cruise

I left off with my Stray group and I relaxing at the lovely River Front Resort, taking a much needed break before our last few days in Laos. Here is how we spent them…

Day 103
– The main reason for stoping off here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, was the Kong Lor caves. This 7km long cave system is more like a tunnel and was supposedly discovered by a guy whose ducks kept disappearing everyday and when he became curious and followed them he found this incredible cave. 

With three of us to a long boat each we felt like twats sitting in clumpy life jackets with very attractive head torches to complete the look, but that didn’t matter so much when we started off into the blackness. Our light flickered over the cavernous roof, catching the swells of rock like we were on the inside of a pitch black wave. We stopped at one point to admire the stalactites and stalecmites, some like thick pillars and others more like blobs and still more slowly developing, no more than spindly icicles for now. The only other time we hopped out was when our little boat and our fat asses couldn’t make it over the shallow little rapids and our driver had to pull the boat through without us in it. Or, as Team Norway found out, when you crash land into another boat and end up basically on top of someone, the two boats like a cross. Luckily no one was hurt but it made for an adventure. Eventually we emerged back into the sunlight on the other side and had a little while to warm up its rays before heading back, this time powering through the little rapids.


Just outside the caves was a big lake that fed into them and the perfect rock for jumping off of. I clambered up to the top, prepared to do an epic and graceful swan dive, only to have my legs decide they were going to try and race my head into the water and bend me at an awkward angle so I jarred my back. I wasn’t that badly hurt though and after a while I went for attempt number two only this time I failed before I even made it on to the rock. Slipping just when I was almost up, I tumbled down, roly poly style back into the water. Luckily no one saw but deciding I would obviously better of watching the pros (aka the Family) doing it, I sheepishly swam back round to join the others without jumping. But still, with mountains shielding us from the outside world and the sun shining, it wasn’t a bad place to cool off and enjoy a nice swim.

Day 104
– I woke in the morning and took one of the boats out to explore upriver a bit more. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my trip. There was no noise except that of my paddle gently propelling me through the water and a few birds twittering in the trees. The water was so clear I could see the rocks, crumbling logs and silver darting fish below the surface as if it were glass. Unfortunatly I couldn’t stay there all day as I had a bus to catch.

We were on our way to Thakek. It was mostly another bus journey day but we were rewarded by an excellent sunset when we arrived. Sipping on some cold beers, the sun became a golden glow across the Mekong, silhouetting Thailand on the other side. It never ceased to amaze me that I could look across the water and see a whole different country.



Day 105
– From not having much to report to having another full on day. We made a few stops today, seeing a temple ruined by the bombing in Laos. Then seeing a temple still in use where they keep the stories written by Monks in a kind of library. Here we all had to put on long skirts to show respect and we walked over a little bridge to the room on stilts that is the library. All of the monk’s stories are written on bamboo and carefully rolled in fabric to be kept safe. 


Our next stop was an odd one. In a lake lives a special kind of turtle called a soft shelled turtle. The Laos people believe they are their ancestors and take good care of them, feeding them sticky rice and other tit bits. They are one of the oddest creatures I’ve ever seen though. To begin with they didn’t look too bad. Their curious heads poked above the water and I could see a slightly weird looking turtle head with a pointy nose but not much more. As a local enticed one to the waters edge with a treat their full strangeness was revealed. They looked exactly as their name suggests. They look like naked turtles. What’s even weirder is the way they try to hide, since they can’t disappear into a shell they simply roll their heads heads back ino their neck flab. Suddenly I could see where the term “turtle neck jumper” had come from.


The final stop had us carting the huge bags of bananas we had bought earlier that morning and had been stinking out the bus all day, into the forest where furtive, quick and hungry monkeys came and took the fruit right out of our hands. To begin with they loved it but soon they were full and no matter how much I coaxed they refused to take a banana from me. The greedy cows who interrupted us though were more than happy to finish them off.


Still a bit creeped out we went on our way and finally arrived in Xi Champhogn. We opted to have BBQ for dinner but this was a BBQ with a difference. Each table had a hole in it to fit a pot of coals, over this was placed a dome with a moat around it. The moat was filled with broth to cook noodles and vegetables in while the top had some melted fat on it to stop the meat from sticking and simply cooked the thin slices of pork with the heat from the coals beneath. The flavour was amazing and it was fun to cook it all ourselves. The place itself was great too. We ate outside and on the walls they projected YouTube videos and it wasn’t long before we were making requests. Our guide broke out the whiskey and when we found out it cost only 10,000 kip, that’s just £1 for a full bottle of whiskey, Rachel and Caitlin went in search for more. There were no traffic cones this night but plenty of singing and dancing to new tunes and old classics. This was definitely one of my favourite nights of the trip.


Day 106 – Feeling a little worse for wear it was back on the bus and on to the next place – Pakse. Pakse is known for the coffee plantations there and we got to sample some at a coffee and tea plantation. I got to try white tea, a new experience, and it was actually really nice. A little like green tea but maybe a bit milder, sweeter. 

Before that we went to another waterfall, this one quite different from the ones in Luang Prubang. This was a mighty thing, rushing out from what seemed like a calm little stream at the top and becoming a magnificent cascade. I had been looking forward to a swim to cure my hangover but the air was colder here and the spray off the waterfall made it even less inviting, so while the unflappable Harry, Ella, Pete and Ellie jumped in, the rest of us admired from a distance. 

For dinner we had another Indian, this one possibly even better than the last and I’m kicking myself that I can’t remember the name of it. Safe to say after loading up on my lentil Dahl it was an early night for me.


Day 107 – Today would be our last full day in Laos. We were going to Don Det and the 4,000 islands. I wonder if anyone has actually ever counted them or if it is just a rough estimate? Getting there was not as easy as you would think though.

Firstly though, we stopped off at yet another temple, this one was one of the biggest we had seen so far, called Site de Vat Phu. At the top of the crumbling stone steps, carpeted by falling flowers, lies a fountain which is considering to be Siwa’s pee. In other words: God’s piss. As gross as this sounds it is considered good luck to climb to the top and splash some of the water (or Hindu God pee) onto yourself. 


Once we had come back down I had another first time experience when Pao, our guide, produced a stick of skewered grilled frogs for us to try. Well, if its good enough for the French and the Laos, its good enough for me. Actually it tastes a lot like chicken. But then what doesn’t?! Slightly more appetising were the little coconut puffs that tasted like pancake…except with sweet corn in the middle. They were a little strange but sweet and tasty. 7 out of 10, would eat again.


On we went towards the ferry to Don Det. I’m pretty sure we all had in mind a big boat, with maybe some benches to sit on, a place to safely park our bus, possibly a little more rustic than what we might be used to in our countries but something along that vein. When we saw what we would actually make the crossing on I think none of us believed it until we, and the bus, were on it and sailing to the other side. The ferry was no more than a wooden platform built on top of three boats, the one in the middle used for steering. That is not an exaggeration. They even have mini versions for motorbikes. It was a relief to reach dry land again intact.


After surviving the ferry crossing Rachel, Caitlin and I had an Indian for lunch, as if eating Indian food twice in Laos already wasn’t enough, before booking ourselves on to do a sunset cruise and see a handful of these 4,000 islands. NOT our best idea. It took ages before we got on the boat and the whole time we had no idea what was going on. We were joined by a random guy who was already very drunk and proceeded to pass us his beer, sit too close and try to make conversation with us. We had just survived the ferry and now it seemed we might be left for dead on some island by the driver and this drunk guy. He even started trying to take photos of me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The second he moved away Caitlin saved me, taking his seat on the bench next to me. When we did stop at a little island we didn’t see the point of getting out to stand and watch on the shore when we could sit comfortably in the boat so much to the drivers confusion we stayed put while he tried to convince us to get out. He gave up and took us on to a different spot and this time we did hop out, only to have our worst fear realised. Well…. almost. As we swam in the Mekong, the sun slowly spreading across the horizon behind us like spilled paint, the drunk guy and our driver decided to take a nap in the boat, only they hadn’t moored us to the island. Luckily they hadn’t drifted far but it was Caitlin who came to the rescue again, swimming after the boat and dragging it back. When we got back to the main island it was the second time that day we were glad to be on dry land again!


Our time in Laos seemed to fly by but I loved every minute of it. It is denitely somewhere I would come back to and spend more time there. I think it has been overshadowed by Cambodia and Vietnam but little Laos should not be underestimated. It is a beautiful place with kind and fun loving people. I knew that when I crossed the boarder to Cambodia the next day, I would miss it.

Laos Part 1 – Tubing, Waterfalls and Traffic Cones

Wow! These last few weeks have been so busy and so non stop my blog has kind of gotten away from me. I have hopped off the Stray bus now for a short stay in Sihanoukeville, Cambodia and finally have a chance to catch up on my blog, as well as sleep! It also helps that my plans for topping up my tan have been sabotaged by a grey sky. So what did I get up to in Laos?

Day 97 –
We arrived in Huey Xia just over the boarder the night before but we didn’t really send any time there. We hopped straight on a boat and travelled on to our home stay experience. The boat was lush. Long and wide it was built to carry 60 people and our small group of 8 plus our guide had it all to ourselves. Even so we mostly stayed up one end where you could slide the roof back and catch some rays, which after a cold morning with the wind making us cocoon ourselves in blankets as we sailed down river, was very welcome.


It took us 6 hours to get to the small village. When we arrived we had a walk around and got to meet the chief. Unfortunatly we came on a Saturday so the school was closed and we couldn’t visit. In fact we were a little disappointed to spend more time on the boat than in the village, but at the same time we got to swim in the Mekong and watch the sunset. We had more time in the village later when we got to participate in a Hindu blessing. It was similar to what I had experienced at the Elephant Nature Park except that at the end we didn’t just get one piece of white yarn tied around our wrists for good luck but instead had every woman from the village circling round us, all jostling to tie another string on our wrists. I had 50 in total by the end of that amazing, hectic, fun ceremony. The villagers are early to bed and early to rise so it wasn’t long after that we snuggled down on our mattresses all in one big room together, feeling like kids at a sleepover again, and went to sleep.



Day 98
– Back on the boat and another long journey to Luang Prubang. We made a stop on the way though, checking out these cave temples that house hundreds of Buddhas. People bring them there for good luck and you are supposed to bring a Buddha in the meditation position associated with your day of birth, for example I was born on a Thursday, which is hands folded in the lap. It’s both a little eerie and quite beautiful to see lines and lines of statues in all shapes and sizes, some glittering and gold and new, some stone and wearing away, coated in dust. 


We arrived in Luang Prubang in the evening with time to explore the night market, though we would come back later or a proper shopping trip, but mostly all we wanted to do was pig out at Aussie bar on their massive burgers while the football was on. We met a couple of interesting Australians too who told us how they had fallen in love with this country that seems so much like the often overlooked little brother to Cambodia and Vietnam and left everything behind to be here. “Live to dream” he said, advice from a contented man who was doing just that.

Day 99
– With our first free day in Laos we were eager to check out the Kuang Si waterfalls, which we had heard were beautiful. Beforehand we had a wander and explored a few local temples but it was the waterfalls that really stand out that day. They were aqua blue, cascading into small and large pools, looking like something out of a fairytale. I half expected to see a mermaid sitting on the edge, combing her hair while another flicked her tail in the water below. While most of the waterfalls are small they all come from one huge drop at the back, tipping over the mountain, the sun gleaming just behind and almost falling down with it. We couldn’t swim in the top one but the others we splashed about in, secretly pretending to be mermaids too, while pesky fish tried to nibble at our feet.


In the evening we went back to the market and I actually enjoyed being able to haggle again, unlike Thailand where I had struggled. I ended up with a lovely painting and some very delicious passion fruit flavoured rum, the last thing I thought I would find in Laos!

Day 100
I couldn’t have planned a better way to celebrate 100 days of travel if I had tried – as soon as we arrived in Van Vieng today we headed straight to the river, grabbing some tubes on the way, and went floating from bar to bar! This was something I had always pictured doing in Laos as it was the main thing I had heard that backpackers do and, although I think its become more low key over the years, it was just as fun as I imagined. What I didn’t imagine it being though was hard work! The river was running kind of low so there were a lot of times I had to frantically paddle to catch up with everyone or to get my bum unstuck off a shallow area! It was ok though as there were plenty of refreshments along the way to keep us going.


What made the day even better was a that I had been travelling with a great group of people since beginning the trip. I was tempted to stop off here but in the end I couldn’t resist staying with the majority of the group. We had Team Norway, four very pretty and elegant Norwegian girls who you would never guess were studying to be engineers, nor would you know they could throw down some serious dance moves as we discovered later that night when we went out for some drinks. Then there was the family, which I never expected to see on the Stray bus and yet they fit in perfectly. Debs, Pete and their two teenagers Harry and Ella had a great rapport with each other and us. These New Zealander’s were quickly beloved by all of us and always greeted by an affection call of “family!” There was Alan who had caught up with us just before our home stay and instantly clicked with us all. Abi, Jess and Ellie joined us too, having started the tour with Alan. Then there was Caitlin and Rachel, one Ozzy, one Brit, best of friends and partners in crime. How to describe them to you? I think what happened that night sums it up. We had played some beer pong, had many drinks and had just started dancing up on a little platform in one of the clubs when Alan slipped and twisted an already bad knee. I went back with him to make sure he was ok but not too long after I heard giggling and stumbling in the hall. I opened the door and immediatly burst out laughing. What I saw was a very drunk Rachel with Caitlin supporting her and a traffic cone clutched in her arms. When they eventually stopped laughing long enough to tell me why the hell they had a traffic cone, the answer was obvious, “because I’m a hazard!” Rachel said. That much was true.



Day 101
– After smuggling the traffic cone out, much to the amusement of the cleaning ladies, we got on the bus to the capital of Vientiene making some interesting stops along the way. The first was to a museum called Cope. The museum show cases the thousands of bombs that were dropped on Laos during the secret war. America had rules about where and when they could bomb Vietnam but those rules didn’t apply in Laos so they dropped bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years on this poor country and its innocent people.  We watched a documentary first about how many of these bombs are still live, wreaking havoc on communities even now as they lie buried under farms, villages and schools and the mammoth task of exposing and safely destroying them. It was fascinating. The museum itself showed testimonies from people who had lived through it or those who had found bombs. It had many casings and demonstrated how people even use them as stilts for their homes because there are so many bomb shells around. It was fascinating, only, like the white temple, we were rushed through and didn’t get to appreciate it properly. Stray is very much go go go and with long bus journeys and schedules to keep I can see why they pressure us bu that doesnt change the fact that I don’t enjoy that aspect of the trip at all.

Before arriving in Vientienne we also saw a temple and a big golden reclining Buddha as well as a mini Arc De Triumph. I would have preferred to stay longer at the museum. However, it was quite late by the time we arrived anyway and we didn’t get a chance to do much except eat a delicious Indian meal we had been recommended by a hostel owner in Chiang Mai. We also all got a starring role on their facebook page when the owner asked if he could have a picture only to take us by surprise by filming a short clip of us promoting his restaurant! 

Day 102
– Yet another long day of driving. It was nice to be covering so much ground but also exhausting. Most of the stops we made were at view points, showing the diversity of Laos from fields to towering mountains. It was all worth it though to arrive at River Front Resort, a haven in the middle of nowhere. Here we stayed in little bungalows connected by wooden walkways and ate dinner looking out over a crystal clear river. We were going to go for a swim in it but we picked a shallow spot so in the end I kind of waded across. Ellie, a girl on the trip we had picked up in Luang Prubang jumped in one of the long boats we were allowed to borrow and paddled across to rescue me on my rock. I thought we might both go in when I climbed on board but I gave the paddling a go and expertly got us across to the other side again. 

Finally, with a day stop over at this peaceful place, we had a chance to catch our breath and relax. We spent the evening playing cards and looking forward to another easy day the next day. Already we were almost done with Laos but there was still more to look forward to yet!