I had two and half weeks off in December 2013 and decided to explore Laos, one of the few countries I had yet to see in Southeast Asia. I heard much from traveller friends about tubing (good and bad) and the beauty of Luang Prabang, so I packed my backpack and set off to judge for myself. And boy! Backpacking in Laos was such a thrill with many ups but a few downs too.
Separate posts for the places I spent time in Laos:
Singapore – Bangkok – Nong Khai – Vientiane
I scored a relatively cheap flight from Singapore to Bangkok for about USD200 and decided to make my way to Vientiane by land. Trains from Hualamphong station in Bangkok to Nong Khai (Thai border to Laos) run every night at 8:00pm and 8:45pm. You have a choice of first class sleeper (with a/c), second class sleeper (with or without a/c), second class seats and third class seats. Here’s a great website with all the details you need: http://www.seat61.com/Thailand.htm#Bangkok to Nong Khai.
I settled for a second sleeper class with fan (no a/c). There’s typically a choice between a lower or an upper berth but considering I booked mine on the same day, I had to settle for an upper berth at THB488 (USD15). I must say that the trip was very smooth. Until 10:00pm, you are seated in spacious seats which are then converted to the lower and upper beds by the train personnel. I’m 187cm but my height was not an issue and I slept pretty comfortably. You are given a blanket and as December is a relatively cool month in Thailand, temperature and humidity were a no issue. I would however recommend a lower berth as it minimizes bumps along the way. At about 7:00am, the train personnel walks around taking orders for breakfast, but I think there’s an extra fee if you order from them. The train does have a restaurant car which serves hot coffee and basic breakfast fare in the morning so I walked there instead. As a smoker, I was pleased that I could light up there while sipping a coffee. Toilets are the squat type, very basic but passable (definitely not as bad as in Burma!). We reached Nong Khai slightly after 8:00am.
I had to withdraw some money when we alighted and I was relieved to find two ATMs right outside the train station at Nong Khai. That done, I paid THB50 for a ‘Tuk tuk’ (3-wheeler taxi) which directed me to an agency to facilitate the visa process. The service costs between THB600 (for those who do not require a visa) to THB2000, depending on your nationality. It includes 1. formalizing all necessary visa documents, 2. transport to the Thai border at Nong Khai and Laos border at Thanaleng where they help speak with the customs officers, 3. the visa fee, which ranges between USD30 to USD42 depending on nationality, and thereafter 4. transport to Vientiane.
Side note to nationalities which generally have trouble getting visas (like with my Mauritius passport): I highly recommend that you get your Laos visa before travelling. My visa on arrival was rejected at the Laos border. I had to travel 3 hours back by bus to Khon Kaen, via Udon Thani, in Thailand where the nearest Laos consulate is. I spent THB1,200 for a visa there, which thankfully was processed within an hour. With a 3-hour trip back to Nong Khai, I wasted a full day and had to spend a night there.
I spent a night in Vientiane where I just sat down at my hostel, Sihome Backpackers Hostel, all the time except for dinner at Ray’s Grill. I booked my bus ticket to Vang Vieng at the hostel for LAK50,000 (USD6.00). There are two such buses that leave daily at 10:00am and 2:00pm. The ride is roughly 3.5 hours long and is pretty smooth as the land is flat. Vang Vieng was pretty great for a couple of days until it started raining. I understand that December is the dry season and that it rains only one day the whole month so I must have been pretty unlucky there. I booked a van ticket to Luang Prabang from my hostel, EasyGo Backpackers Hostel, for LAK110,000. We left in the afternoon at 3:30pm.
Now, that was one of the worst journeys I’ve ever experienced. It was a minivan with ‘space’ for 10 people at the back. I got stuck in the front seat at the back of the van with very little leg space. The route to Luang Prabang from Vang Vieng starts off pretty smoothly on flat land for about a couple of hours. Then the deadly winding roads take over all the way for another 4 to 5 hours. The cold weather did not help either and none of us were prepared for it. All of us in the van had a sweater at most and the last 4 hours were freezing. I was in singlet, a light sweater, shorts and slippers so that explains.
We reached Luang Prabang past 10:00pm, all pretty groggy from the trip. By the time we alighted, the entire place around us was closed or closing. The van stopped us at an area which, I realised the next day, has three streets of guest houses and hostels. I walked along the main one but couldn’t find a cheap hostel. I was so tired I settled for a guesthouse, Hoxieng 1, for 30USD a night. The next day I found a much cheaper alternative for LAK50,000 a night at LPQ Backpackers which is only 2 roads down.
Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane – Singapore
I never learn my lesson. I booked a van back to Vang Vieng from LPQ Backpackers Hostels where I was staying in Luang Prabang. A tuk tuk picked me up at 8:30am supposedly to drive 10 of us to the bus station. Instead, we were driven to a small village about 10 minutes away where the driver made us wait a good 20 minutes before he drove a minivan to us. It was again a tiny minivan in which the 10 of us had to fit in. Not a very pleasant experience with the leg space problem. It was a very scenic drive back to Vang Vieng though and along the way, we had a 30 minute break at a restaurant overlooking a gorgeous valley. With all the stops, we only reached Vang Vieng late afternoon. From Vang Vieng, it was a pretty straightforward ride back to Vientiane in a VIP coach. I planned to go back to Bangkok by land to catch my flight but after the terrible experience at the Thai-Laos border at Nong Khai-Thanaleng, I opted for an air ticket from Vientiane instead, my wallet USD150 lighter.
TIPS & IDEAS:
- If you’ve ever experienced Customs which do not recognize your country (like Mauritius), get your visa before you travel to Laos, especially when travelling by land.
- Make sure you understand what mode of transport you’ll be taking when doing your land travel bookings. Minivans do not leave much room for your legs.
- It gets really cold in Luang Prabang in December so bring some proper winter wear
- If you are backpacking in Laos and want to stay cheap, book your hostel in advance in Luang Prabang during peak season
- Expect Luang Prabang to be more expensive than Vang Vieng and Vientiane
- Ride a bike to Kouang Si falls in Luang Prabang to enjoy some pretty nice landscapes along the way
- Catch a sunset on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang
- Go the night market in Luang Prabang and try the local fare. The buffalo sausages are excellent.
- Have lunch along the Mekong in Luang Prabang
- Have a mojito at Utopia in Luang Prabang
- There’s more to Vang Vieng than just partying, drinking and tubing. Rent a motorbike and ride to the lagoons and caves.
- Visit Gary’s bar in Vang Vieng
- Eat a Philly cheese steak at Ray’s Grill in Vientiane
- Meet fellow backpackers at Sihome Backpackers Hostel in Vientiane
- Go to Blue Lagoon in Vang Vieng, take a dip and then climb the hill to explore Phoukham cave