Welp, despite my promise to do this more frequently, here we are. Two months in and number three. Womp womp.
Let’s see, I guess I left off in Luang Prabang…
The next day was a big one. My two friends and I agreed to get up early to see the sun rise from Mount Phousi, which is a huge hill in the middle of Luang Prabang with a temple on top. I would’ve liked to see sunset there too, but one of my friends had gone the day before and said that it was a shitshow mob of tourists, and that you see more of a see of cellphones than the sun itself. However, get up at 5AM and…you’ll definitely have less company up there. So we did that, and were climbing the hill around 5.50AM or so. We actually passed some people and monks coming back from the giving of the alms ceremony thing they do on the streets in many Laos cities. Getting up that early to do pretty much anything always feels pretty cool. You can be doing something fairly mundane but it’ll feel like a mission because you’re awake when it’s dark, but on the “other side” of the day. But it felt especially cool climbing up these steep stairs through the trees before sunset. Anyway, we finally got there, panting from being out of shape travelers, and it was already getting light enough to make out the city. There were only maybe…2 or 3? other people already there, which was cool. We all sat in mostly silence, happily watching it get lighter, and occasionally whispering to each other. However, soon enough, a fairly large group of tourists came up talking pretty loudly and even shouting to each other. A girl, one of the ones who had been up there before us, noticeably winced and then moved away to a different area with a worse view, to get away from them. I…kind of don’t get it. I get if they want to talk to their friends, but they can still do that quietly, right? Anyway, enough kvetching.
Next, since we were up early anyway, we had planned to go to the Kuang Si waterfalls, which is definitely LP’s biggest attraction. We also wanted to do it fairly early because a few people had told me that if you go at a normalish/after lunch time, it’s a mob scene, so to get there early. It was about an hour’s scooter ride outside the city. A lot of it was really pretty driving through fields and stuff, but a lot of the roads were pretty awful, where we’d basically have to stop to a crawl to carefully navigate the potholes (though some streets in Providence could probably give them a run for their money). On the path up to the falls, you actually pass through a bear rescue sanctuary. I’ve read that you should be pretty suspicious/not condone most animal attractions in Asia, since there’s such a standard of abusing them for profit and entertainment, but they were supposedly a rescue place here, so hopefully that was okay. Anyway, there were really just a few moon bears, which are like derpy looking, small black bears.
The falls themselves were really, really cool. You walk alongside them at a slight uphill for a while. You can stop and swim in some or most of them, but it seemed like some number of them were arbitrarily off limits for swimming (maybe there’s something horrible about those ones I don’t know about!). The water in them was this brilliant like aqua blue, and the rocks were this pretty white. Actually, as I’d find out later, I’m pretty sure the rocks had the same condition as the Sticky Waterfalls I wrote about before, because I climbed up them pretty easily and they provided a ton of grip despite the falls battering me.
We actually swam in those (the main pools) last though, because first we walked to the main falls, which are enormous and beautiful. I think that was actually lucky though, because there are these paths through the jungle next to the main falls, so you can go to the top, that I think a lot of people don’t do (maybe because they already swam in the other pools and are tired by the time they get there?). I mean, tons of people also do them, it’s hardly a secret, but many people I talked to who went there didn’t actually go up them. Up at the top was a much calmer pool (the source of the falls), with a swing, and faaaaar fewer people. So we actually swam in that first, which was a bunch of fun. We took pictures of each other swinging off of this vine into the water, and there was a nice view over the main falls. By the time we were leaving at 1PM or so, it was definitely getting way more crowded, so I see what people meant. On the other hand, the water was somewhat chilly so there were very few people actually swimming there, despite the crowd, so… I dunno, maybe it wouldn’t matter.
That evening, instead of seeing the sunset from Mount Phousi, we went to a spot a photographer we met at the sunrise had suggested for us that was much less crowded, down by the shore of the Mekong. This turned out to be perfect, and we found a porch thing where there were just two other people, and a clear view of the sun setting over the mountains and Mekong. Definitely a solid tip.
However, I was soon getting a little bored of LP. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice city, but I was getting the “time to move on” feeling. My friend Chris had suggested at some point that I check out a place called Nong Khiaw (again, a million different spellings), so I did some reading about that and it seemed perfect. It’s this very small city in the north of Laos. We took a ~3 hour, pretty bumpy minivan ride from LP to NK (though I was assured that the ride from LP to Vang Vieng was muuuch worse, just you wait and see). The minivans are comical here, with them really cramming people in and having baggage on peoples’ laps. It’s a little frustrating that they’ll overbook it like that, but them’s the breaks in SEA. I think that at some point, the city was only reachable by boat; now that there are dams being built and a road there, I believe it’s only reachable by road. Speaking of, I had read about China’s interest/investment in Laos hydropower, and the construction around the dam all said “China Power”, so that’s probably an example of it.
Getting out of the van in NK we were greeted with a beautiful view. The city is nestled right in the mountains, and it’s pretty much perpetually misty around the mountaintops, which looks amazing.
The city is divided by a huge bridge over the Ou Nam (a subsidiary of the Mekong). Most of the guesthouses and restauants that tourists go to are very near to the bridge, but I later discovered that there was actually a pretty large part of the town where the actual people lived and did their stuff; we watched a pretty large soccer game and festival at the school. In fact, this has really been a pattern in a few places I’ve been: the area tourists are naturally funneled to (by dint of the location of attractions, accommodations, etc) is pretty small, but it’s actually supported by a way larger part of the city that’s where the people who work in that area actually live their lives, with less glamorous stuff like markets and small shops. But if you get to those areas, everything is typically way cheaper and different, which is always neat to see.
Anyway, probably the main thing to do in Nong Khiaw are a few caves (which I unfortunately didn’t do, but heard were cool), and these two viewpoints over the city/surrounding area, which I did and were insane. The hikes were somewhat tough but not too long, the first one being about 40 minutes up and the second about 90 minutes up. We actually did both in the same day, which was cool, but my friend sprained her ankle coming down from the second one, since it was getting dark and we were pretty exhausted by that point. The first one was great, but the second was the real star of the show, with a 360 degree view of the area, which looks pretty magical.
From NK, you can actually go even farther north, where the cities and villages get progressively more remote and smaller. NK is already somewhat of a rarity for people to go (though it’s all relative; I mean, definitely a tiny minority of backpackers in Laos actually end up there, but at the same time it’s not really a secret and there’s a detailed wikitravel page for it, so… it really depends what you mean), but Muang Ngoi is definitely a step further removed. The only way is to take an hour boat ride from NK, farther up the river, which was a pretty beautiful ride.
On the way there, it started raining pretty bitterly. NK was already actually fairly chilly, compared to the same day in LP where I had been wearing shorts and a tank top, but in NK it just meant I had to wear a sweatshirt at night. However, the first day, MN was freezing, and despite wearing pretty much all the layers I could, I was still pretty cold because I hadn’t really planned to be in a cold atmosphere in SEA. MN is real small. There’s essentially a single dirt street, which, that first day, was more like a single mud street. NK is low tech but at least had a few streetlights in the main area, but MN had nothing of the sort. MN pretty much shut down real early, so at night the main road was just a dark, wet, mud road. I’m not gonna lie, the first day in MN was pretty crappy, and I think I and the people I was with, all decided that if the rain didn’t let up, we were gonna throw in the towel and get the early boat back to NK.
So we got up at 8AM (the boat was at 9.30AM) to assess, and luckily it was clearing up! We decided to stay that day, because we essentially hadn’t gotten to do anything in MN. A large part of the draw of MN is simply being in a very remote place, but there are a few things to do. One of the main ones is to walk or motorbike to these very remote villages several km outside of MN, where you can either just see how they live, or do a homestay, where you stay with a family for a few nights and get an even closer look. So, we set out, ideally wanting to reach the three villages, knowing that we’d probably only have time to see 1 or 2. However, before getting to the first village, we got to a cave we had heard to check out.
Laos (and SEA in general) has a lot of caves, but they have a bit of a special thing in Laos. For background, many Americans don’t know (I sure didn’t) that we dropped a ton of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war. I think the reason for it was to cut off Vietcong supply chains or something. Apparently, Laos is the “most bombed country” or something insane, depending on how you count, and a very large number of these bombs never exploded, so to this day, UXO still kills Laotians. Apparently some trigger them when expanding their farmland with machinery, some are triggered by routine fires, and some people actually try to collect and harvest the bombs for the materials. You hear some pretty awful stuff, like that US planes couldn’t return to base with the bombs, so they’d drop them just to get rid of them. Anyway, I bring this up because the caves are where many Laotians would essentially live during this time, only coming out at night to gather supplies, and apparently this cave was one of them.
Anyway, this cave was crazy. I hadn’t really been in a deep one before, so I kind of assumed it was an opening that you could go a little ways into, but no. This cave went so, so, so deep. It “ended” at a small waterfall (though someone adventurous probably could’ve gone deeper), and that took us maybe an hour to get to. We were so deep and it was pretty labyrinthine too. I was also pretty amazed at how dangerous it was and how little infrastructure there was. In the US, there probably would’ve been a sign in sheet, maybe a check for footwear and headlamp, many chasms/etc filled in/covered, all sorts of stuff, but this was pretty much like “yeah, it’s dangerous…be careful, don’t be dumb, have fun!” It was really cool, even though I wiped out and got mud on my butt and camera (everything was real slippery).
After getting out, we continued to the villages. The walk there was really pretty, a combination of dirt roads and going through some rice fields. The village was pretty low tech, but there was a small restaurant thing there so we stopped for food because it was about lunchtime (I guess they get enough travelers to warrant someone setting up a place). It seemed like he only actually had about 2 things on his whole menu, noodles and a bamboo soup. The village was interesting. It was definitely more rural and poorer than any of the places I had been, but I think it’s kind of interesting that, precisely because it was at some point known for that, it now has some attention and business, which makes it probably not the least-touched place anymore. I mean, I guess that’s just the old hat “damn tourists making everything touristy!” rant, but there are definitely random places on the side of the road I’ve seen from buses here that are wayyy poorer/less developed because they’re not mentioned in a wikitravel article. It just seems like these were supposed to be “the” “out there” places, but because of that, they aren’t anymore.
Regardless, it was interesting to see. Despite seeing a couple satellite dishes and some of the kids wearing clothes they definitely got from a city, most the people there were still living in small huts without electricity, pretty simply. I had an interesting debate with a friend there, after asking my friends if they thought the village people were gay (sorry, couldn’t resist), i.e., happy. My friend said he thought they were; they seemed well fed enough and had a community and family and such. I said that I agree that that they might be happy with that in a vacuum, but these people aren’t that insulated from the outside world; a lot of them have probably been to NK or maybe even LP and seen how people lived there, and then want that improved quality of life. It’s not that they were starving or amputees or whatever in the villages, but I think people usually want more if they know of more and scale their happiness to their fulfillment of what they know. I don’t think they’re sad per se, but I think there’s a tendency for people from our walk of life to paint this picture of a pastoral idyll of simple pleasures when the reality might be a lot more sordid/boring/unfulfilling (I’m looking at you, Fleet Foxes).
Anyway, I was really glad we stayed that day. In the next couple days, I went back to LP and then off to Vang Vieng, which is a whole other thing. However, the bus ride between LP and VV may have been one of the very prettiest places I’ve ever been in, as well as one of the very bumpiest bus rides I’ve ever taken (my friends weren’t lying). It went through these mountains with these views that I almost couldn’t believe, with clouds just pouring down valleys like a liquid. Because we only had one pee/view stop, I didn’t get many pictures, but I had to save one specific location on my phone, because I almost have to go back there on my own at some point. I’m surprised that area hasn’t leveraged its location into more of a tourist stop, but holy hell.
Ahhh, so Vang Vieng. VV is mostly known at this point for being a somewhat gross backpacker party city, and the reputation isn’t totally undeserved. The Wikipedia article on it or general googling can give you a pretty good idea of it. It’s probably most famous for its tubing, the location of all those tourist deaths in 2011 (?). But, as it says in the wiki article, the Laos government (under pressure from the Australian government, because many of those deaths were Aussies, I heard) cracked down on it and definitely made the tubing way more mellow, and I think that actually has made the city a bit less crazy. I mean, debauchery still happens, but it seems a lot more mild now from what I heard/what I saw. The wiki article also mentions that a lot of the locals hate what tourists have done to the city, but I actually take a little issue with that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty much not into what it is, but foreign tourists (not to mention Laos tourists, which actually do partake as well) are only half the story, the demand. The debauchery also has to be supplied by Laos businesspeople (basically all the businesses are local owned), so… they’re at least half responsible, and you definitely don’t see them complaining. I guess it could be that they’re a minority of the Laos population, taking advantage of (relatively) rich foreigners who want to party, and most locals hate them, but I don’t really think that’s the case from what I’ve seen. It seems like a massive amount of the city’s economy is based on it.
Despite VV’s reputation, it’s actually in a ridiculously scenic place, such that you can pretty much see these huge mountains, pretty close, in most directions. So, if you actually get out of the city, there’s a ton of cool stuff to do, which is mostly what I was after. The first day, I met a couple people and we did the famous viewpoint hike, that gives you a pretty incredible look in most directions around VV.
To celebrate our tough hike (my friend Andrew wore flip flops for the hike (whyyy) and they broke, so he had an extra hard time), we got dinner down by the river, and I’m pretty sure I had some pork that pretty much landed me on my ass. Previously on this trip, I had been eating every single weird street food I could find and had no stomach troubles yet. But ahhhhh, the higher they fly, the farther they fall, and boy, did I fall. Like brash young Icarus, this pork brought me hurdling back to earth where I spent the majority of the next couple days shivering and sweating in bed and walking in a feverish haze to the bathroom. I won’t elaborate further, except to say, damn you, sketchy river pork.
I took one day completely out, to recover, and by the second day was still a bit sickly but didn’t want to miss out on too much, so I joined the hostel crew (they seem to go every day or so) for tubing. It was fun, but you could really tell how much it had been reduced from its past. There were really only two bars open along the river, and going down it, you could see the shells of many other former bars, as well as many ziplines over the river (which were apparently one of the bigger culprits, drunk people ziplining and cracking their heads on rocks/etc). But to be honest, I was still pretty under the weather by that point, so I played some casual volleyball at one bar and took it easy, enjoying floating down the river and the pretty scenery. One thing I’ll say is that I definitely wish we had started out earlier. The group left at about 2PM and sunset here and now is about 5.30PM, so we finished the last stretch in the dark, where I was shivering uncontrollably (I had also only eaten 4 Tim Tams that day since my stomach was still weird and timing didn’t work out for me to go grab some mild soup). Luckily, the beach bar we ended up at had a huge fire, where I crouched next to like some primitive man (since I had lost my shirt as well).
VV actually also has a tonnn of caves around it. I still felt like I hadn’t seen from VV what I actually wanted (the area, not the parties), so a couple friends and I rented scooters to go to a few places (I actually rented a semi-manual bike because I’m trying to learn to ride manual in preparation for Vietnam! My friend Gabriel who’s very into it taught me). We first tried to go to Tham Chang (/Jang/etc) cave, the big name one, but accidentally went to another, which turned out to be really cool. Like the cave in MN, it was incredibly deep, though not as dangerous. We saw a palm sized spider, and got to a point where it definitely kept going, but got wet enough that none of us had the right shoes for it. It was really cool though, having to duck under huge stalactites and climb a bunch, and we saw some weird cave creatures, like a crab and these weird pale crickets. Then we went to the Blue Lagoon (number 3, there are actually several of them), which is a total silly touristy thing. It’s basically a big concrete swimming pool in a really scenic place, but we were hot and wanted a dip to cool off and wash the cave mud off our bodies. Everything there is so crappily built, like a huge swing tower for jumping into the water. I mean, it worked and I didn’t see anyone die, but there is no way that could exist in the US. It creaked and swayed eerily every time someone jumped off of it. Finally, we went to the original cave we meant to go to, which as it turns out was right outside of town. Our friend Natasha was tired by that point and decided to bail for that one, which turned out to be a good choice, because it kind of sucked. It was super well lit, had paved roads inside, and throngs of loud tourists clogging it up, even right at closing. Basically, the opposite of all the things that I like about the caves I’ve gone into (quiet, dark, creepy, feels like you’re exploring, empty, etc).
Now I’m off to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I got the word from my friends that they’re going to visit me in Hanoi, so that partially determines my plans for now. Right now, I think I’ll continue down through Laos, seeing the central and southern parts relatively very few people see, do these two famous motorbike loops that let you see some real country, continue south into Cambodia, and then fly to Hanoi to meet them. However, given how much time I have until meeting them, I potentially might have a couple spare weeks, so I might see if there are any cheap AirAsia flights to someplace else I want to briefly check out, like Malaysia or Myanmar or the Phillipines…any ideas?