Vientiane to the 4000 Islands, the La(o)st of Laos

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Hey there again! I guess last time I left off, I was about to leave Vang Vieng to head farther south in Laos, by way of Vientiane, first. The main goal was to do two motorbike loops in central and south Laos, but I’ll get to that later. If you want to go south, especially by common bus routes, you’ll almost certainly end up going through the capital, Vientiane. I had heard pretty dismal stuff about it, but figured I’d give it about a day’s worth of attention, which I think was a good choice.

The bus ride from VV to Vientiane was uneventful, and my friend and I who were both heading there decided to check into a hostel a few friends of ours from VV were already at and said good stuff about. The bus depot we got dropped off at was annoyingly far outside of the city proper, which is an unfortunate pattern I’ve noticed (though I’m sure the tuk tuk drivers aren’t complaining).

Vientiane itself is…technically a city, as I said to a friend here. It’s the capital of Laos, but it’s very much just an industrial, business city, doing its own thing. In a way that’s refreshing, it’s definitely “real”, but it’s also just a kind of dirty, unappealing place to stay. It’s also much more visibly communist that where I had been in Laos so far. The buildings are large, stark, and all look the same. There are a lot of big buildings that really seem like they don’t get much use. We got there in the evening, so all our activities were for the next day. In the morning I already booked a bus out of there for 6PM, so that was my time limit. I gathered a few people who also wanted to see the city’s (slim, so very slim) offerings, we rented scooters, and off we went.

The first thing we did wasn’t really a site, but it’s worth noting. My friend Daisy, by way of our friend Andrew, showed us what she/he claimed was the best food in either Vientiane or Laos. The place was very much a little hole in the wall, but strangely pricey (a regular dish being like, 50000LAK, so roughly double what it’d normally cost). But, they weren’t lying, the food really was excellent. I haven’t been too impressed with Laos food overall (aside from some pretty good street food in Luang Prabang and some really solid sandwiches in VV), so it was nice getting a solid Laos food experience. Anyway, after that we went to the Paxutomai (?) monument, which will probably be at the top of the list if you google “best stuff to do in vientiane”. It’s a 4-way arch thing that gives you a view of the city that… to be honest I didn’t especially need to see. You mostly see a bunch of dingy buildings and construction cranes. It actually has several floors on the way up, and they’re allllll filled with tourist crap merchandise. The next thing to check out was the “Laos National Culture Museum” or something. We went there, aaaand… it was closed, for “moving”. At that point the quality of the list dropped off sharply, suggesting things like a textile museum and “go to a more exciting city in fact why are you even here” (just kidding).

There’s actually one other, possibly more famous thing, the Buddha park, but we didn’t go to it first because Daisy had been to it the day before so we were gonna go to that without her at the end. At this point, we decided to go there since that was the only thing left to do, so Leah and I scootered there, which was 50 minutes away on some of the worst roads I had driven on up to that point (more on that later). To be fair, they weren’t dangerous roads, just unpaved, really bumpy, and REALLY dusty, so it was just generally miserable driving.

The Buddha park is basically…welp, a park full of concrete Buddhas. The thing is, it’s not really a “holy” place; it’s literally just a lawn that a guy either started collecting or building all these Buddhas on, in the past few decades I believe. So it feels very much like just an obvious tourist trap, but I guess it worked on me. I think they even actually tried charging me when they noticed my camera, which is pretty crappy in my opinion. There’s this enormous… apple? or something, that you can go inside, go up several levels (and there’s some weird scenery inside), and go to the top and look out over the park. It’s…another thing you can do that will take you several minutes. I feel like that should be on Vientiane’s city crest: “here is a thing you can do that will take you several minutes.”

I didn’t go to these, because they were waaaay low on the list, but my friend Andrew actually spent several days there, so went to some random museums like the “national police museum” or something. Remember what I said about the big stark buildings? He said these were super communist like that; museums with huge, basically empty rooms, where they had to hand over their phones and cameras to be locked away before they could enter, and had guards follow them into every room.

Anyway, we raced back from the Buddha park because I had to catch my 6PM bus. It wouldn’t have been so tight, but we got caught in some sort of rush hour traffic, which is a special type of hell there, with all the fumes and general chaos. To be honest, I feel like I did Vientiane kind of perfectly. I was in it for about 22 hours total, saw the few things I could see, was bemusedly dissatisfied, and used it as a stopover point to get the hell out of there, which is kind of its main function. Sorry Vientiane, you just suck.

I made the tuktuk for the bus, and found that several friends were also taking it. However, we were going to different places. I was going to a small city called Thakhek, whereas they were continuing farther south to places like the 4000 islands and Cambodia. The first bad sign was that we ended up waiting at the bus depot for about…2 or 3 hours? for our sleeper bus. The thing is, communication and logistics are just so bad here that it’s never clear whether the bus was actually late, or they just brought us there insanely conservatively early for the bus (another fun pattern in SEA). It wasn’t all bad, we tried some exotic flavors of Lays chips while waiting.

Anyway, after getting antsier and grouchier, watching many buses that weren’t ours arrive and leave, ours pulled in. And it actually looked great! I had heard pretty mixed reviews about sleeper buses in Laos, but this one appeared to be brand new. We excitedly went to our beds (they’re kind of weird beds you share with someone else where you can’t fully stretch out, but still pretty decent) and tucked in, and were quickly asleep. The next thing I knew, we were woken up, we were in the middle of nowhere, the bus had stopped, and there was mild chaos. Someone mentioned that it had only been about a half hour since we left, and the bus had broken down… We were now being herded onto another sleeper bus (which was at least already there I guess…). Some people were angrily talking to the bus people, asking about who to talk to about getting a refund, but… that’s just such a lost cause I can’t begin to explain. Once the money is out of your paws here, it’s sand in the wind. Like, I typically don’t even have the faintest idea the name of the company whose bus I’m on, let alone getting someone on the phone with good enough English that they could tell what you’re saying, let alone getting them to give you a refund.

Anyway, we got on the new bus, and the assigned seating appears to have gone out the window. For some reason, I was last on, and this time, instead of sharing a bed with a friendly European (?), I was sharing it with a local Laos guy who kept poking me, I hope by accident. Anyway, finally I was awoken at about 5AM. It’s nice that they remembered to wake me up, I guess, since I was the only passenger going to Thakhek, but the bus was also about 4 hours later than when it should have arrived… At this point I was a little worried, because I specifically booked a guesthouse that said it had a 24 hour reception desk, but the bus station they dropped me off at was also far outside of the main city, and Laos is not the most trustworthy place for timing and plans and reception. I got real lucky that there was a lone, awake tuktuk driver there who gave me a (albeit, way too pricey) ride to my guesthouse, which was…womp womp, totally closed. Thanks for lying about your 24 hour reception, jerks. Anyway, very luckily, the tuktuk driver understood what I asked, and there happened to be a hotel down the road which did have someone there. I went into the lobby, and after saying Sabaidee..? in a questioning manner, a woman who had clearly been sleeping came out from a door behind the counter, and checked me in. I had to pay a pricey ~$20 for a room, but at that point I was so tired and desperate I probably would’ve paid $50.

The hotel and room felt so communist. The hotel was huge, and as far as I could tell, pretty empty. Inside, it was pretty stark. It felt like a hotel that the local communist government would use to spy on foreign travelers through tons of hidden cameras. That said, the bed was comfy which was exactly what I needed.

The next morning, luckily the scooter place was right around the corner. I had the choice between a place run by a German guy, and a place run by a Chinese guy, who charged half as much. I read a few reviews online about the German guy being a total jerk about minor scrapes, so I went for the Chinese place (they were right next to each other). I got the scooter for tentatively 3 days, with the possibility of just paying extra if I took it for a 4th.

Now, I actually did the loop “backwards”, which takes some explaining. Most blogs you can read on this say to do the loop CCW, because that way you do this boring highway stretch at the end, and you also get to do the Kong Lor Cave the last day. However, the scooter rental guy told me that some people had been stopped by the Laos police at the beginning of the CCW loop direction, because technically we’re not supposed to be driving without a Laos license. So, he suggested doing the loop CW, and not only that, weaving a path through the city of Thakhek itself to the highway, to avoid the major roads where cops might be. I really wanted to do the loop the normal direction, but I also really didn’t want to get stopped and not get to do it at all, so I did it CW.

Finally, I was off! The highway stretch actually wasn’t that bad at all. The roads were in flawless condition for that stretch, so I was able to make really good time. I stopped at a roadside restaurant shack, and the people there were delighted to see a non-Laos face, shaking my hand and asking me where I’m from. I pointed at one guy’s shirt, that said “FASHION NEW YORK” or something, thinking how strange it is that he wears this shirt with a place name on it, that I’m from. It’s on the shirt because it’s basically just ~~typical american stuff~~, but I’m not sure he even knew it was a place, or what.

Anyway, after the highway stretch, it quickly got a lot more rugged, but a lot more beautiful. In some sections the road was more pothole than road, and needed some serious navigation. It wasn’t that late, about 2-3PM, but while I was warm enough on the highway stretch in the sun to be wearing a tee, because I was going up into the mountains in this section, every time the road dipped into the shade, it was quickly getting chilly.

Finally, I arrived in Na Hin, which is the village on the loop where the turn off for the cave is. It’s somewhat of a major stop along the loop for most people, but it really is still pretty low tech. I mean, there are a few gas stations, a handful of little stores, but otherwise it’s still very much a dinky little village. That said, I was a little worried about accomodation that night, because you can’t book anything online, but there were guesthouses EVERYWHERE. There was no way I would have ended up without a place, and in fact, I very easily got a bed at one of the two I had read about on blogs, Sanhak, which was lovely. The food was excellent, they only made me pay at the very end of my stay, and I got a “dorm” for 3 bucks, but it was really a bed in a room of 4 other beds, where no one else was staying, so it was all mine. There were some friendly other people there I had dinner and drinks with, before going to bed early, to get up early for the cave.

Ahhhh, the cave. First, the ride there was beautiful. There were these huge mountain ranges on either side, going through farmland and all these tiny farming villages, so the ride alone was pretty cool. However, the roads were also truly terrible, and my attention had to be 80% on them. Finally I got to the cave, which I think is technically in a national park. The cave is 7km long, and water runs through it, so you commission a boat to take you through it! There were boatmen just lying around napping on mats, and you go to the ticket booth and pay, and then they wake one up for you. They have a cool system where you can have 1-3 people (besides the driver) on a boat, and the more people, the more people you divide the price by. I met another girl there who was also alone, so we split the cost and it ended up being about $8 each, which is a great deal. I was kicking myself, because I had somehow forgotten my headlamp and sandals at the guesthouse, but they very thoughtfully rent them out there. In fact, I shouldn’t even say “rent”, because they give them for free, with just a deposit! This honestly felt like one of the few times the country of Laos had its act together, and it was great.

Once we paid, we followed the boat man, who carried the motor for the boat into the cave. The outside of the cave actually looked really idyllic and had a swimming spot, but we had other plans. As you walk into the cave, you begin to get a sense of the scale. The idyllic river/swimming area outside is actually what the cave drains out into. So, as you enter, you’re walking along the very edge of it where there’s a small sandy beach where the boats are moored, but most of it (~100 feet wide) is covered in water. We got in the boat, which was pretty small and rickety — if you made any sudden movements, you might end up in the cold, dark cave river, which is definitely a contender for my top nightmare scenarios.

We took off. Our boat guy didn’t really speak any English and the motor was kind of noisy, so we weren’t talking much, but that’s fine because we were just looking in awe. I seriously couldn’t believe how huge it was inside, and I’m eternally grateful they lent us those decent headlamps, so I could look around. I want to describe how huge and cavernous it was inside, but I’m realizing now that there’s not really any great way to, because you don’t have a reference point for how large a “really big cave” is. They should probably add that to the Common Core or something. It was definitely larger than, like, a car.

Anyway, we soon stopped at another little beach and were told to get out and walk. We followed a really small Laos man who also didn’t speak any English (lots of communicating through pointing and gesturing on both sides) through a path that went through a huge stalactite field, which was really cool. However, there were lots of lights that were clearly meant to light the whole place up, but they weren’t on. He gestured to an electrical box, apparently apologizing that it wasn’t working (this is more typical Laos). After a short walk, we met our boat man again at another beach and continued. Eventually, we reached the other end of the cave, where our boat guy had to pull the boat up some short falls. I offered to help, but I’m pretty sure we both knew I’d just be in the way. It had been about an hour in the cave at this point (it’s 7km long!), so seeing daylight glaring at us was somewhat blinding. He drove us a little further along the river that feeds the cave to a small village where they were selling refreshments and a few souvenirs. Soon we went back, which was pretty much the same as the ride in, except…they had gotten the lights working! And they looked great. The same walk was way cooler this time (sorry for doubting you Laos!).

Anyway, here’s where I think I fucked up a little. The cave itself took ~3 hours, the ride to the cave took a while because I stopped for pics and the roads are terrible, and I had to do the road back to Na Hin, to even get back on the loop. So I was done with the cave at around 2PM (I think?), and I wanted to push on along the loop, basically to feel a little more progress and because it felt so soon to have the day be “done”. In retrospect, the smart thing would’ve been to stay another night at the great guesthouse in Na Hin, have another couple delicious, cheap meals and a nice bed, relax, and then get a really early start the next day. Instead, I did the dumbest option, and pushed on towards the next town.

This was stupid for a few reasons. The first is that you really want to avoid biking at night in general, and especially with these godawful Laos roads. At that point it was usually pretty dark around 5.30PM, so counting the hour to get back to the loop and the ~50km to the next city, I was kind of pushing it. The second is that even though I was comfortably riding in a t-shirt during midday, it actually got cold as hell once the sun wasn’t directly on me, since it’s kind of the mountains. The third is that the city I was aiming for is a piece of shit city: Laksao (or Laxsao). The few blogs I read all disparaged it, and they weren’t wrong.

Anyway, about halfway between Na Hin and Laksao I noticed that the bike was doing something weird, “sliding” a little when I’d accelerate. Getting off, I found that the back tire had popped, so I was basically riding on flat rubber. At this point I had to make a difficult decision. I could get it fixed along the way (which I probably could’ve; there was usually a mechanic with spare tubes in each tiny village I passed), but it was already getting dark so I’d certainly be riding in the dark then, or I could ride the remaining 25km on this wobbly tire. I opted for the latter, because when I weighed the danger of each in my mind, I felt better about driving a little slower to account for the wobble in the light than riding a working scooter on those dark mountain roads.

Anyway, I finally got to Laksao. I got the tire fixed immediately in town, for about $5. I had to get gas too, because I was at empty (I’m pretty sure I was actually going through gas about twice as fast because of the tire. I don’t know why this would be (maybe it was “slipping” and therefore had to work harder to do the same distance or something?), but I’m nearly positive about it). Anyway, at this point I was a bit of a frazzled mess. I was really cold from the night mountain air whipping me, the tire and gas ordeal were pretty stressful, I was tired and hungry, and Laksao was pretty depressing. It’s basically a stopover town for huge trucks crossing the nearby Vietnam border, so it didn’t have any backpacker type infrastructure like Na Hin did. It’s grimy as hell. I checked a couple hotels (no guesthouses I could find at that late notice) and made a pretty poor choice with the one I took too. It was definitely the worst place I’ve stayed yet, comically bad. It had a single flickering fluorescent bulb, stained sheets, ants, and a bathroom that made prison cells look cozy. At this point I wanted a nice hot shower, but the heater box was cheap and weak, so I basically took a low pressure, barely warm birdbath, which only made me colder. I got out, dried off with my own towel (the hotel didn’t provide one…), put on all my layers, and decided to go search the town for something hot to eat.

So, I haven’t actually read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I have seen the movie poster for it and I’d wager I have a pretty good sense of the book. And, this city had a serious The Road vibe going on, with maybe a bit of Harmony Korine’s Gummo mixed in. It felt pretty post-apocalyptic. At this point it was only maybe 8PM, which, in almost every other city I’ve been in, would mean there are street vendors and such. I actually did manage to find a little group of them, but there were pretty slim pickins. I bought some fruit for the next morning, but the dinner options were…poor. I bought a couple bagged mystery dishes, which were… fair, but just not really hot like I wanted. Here’s what confused me. There were this group of stalls (and a few others scattered around town), but…no one was buying anything from them. I’m pretty sure I was the first customer that night; I’m nearly positive no locals were buying from each other. I just don’t get what they’re doing, they set these stalls up each night for basically no one, and just sit there? It was bizarre and added to the general sadness of the city. Guys, just don’t stay in Laksao if you ever do the Thakhek loop.

Welp, I wasn’t done making dumb choices just yet. For some reason, maybe because I had started out a little too late that day, or maybe because it was 9PM and I just wanted to sleep and be warm, I decided that I’d go to bed early, and wake up at like 5 or 6AM to start the next day. This proved to be another bad idea, because there’s actually not a ton to do around the area I was headed (therefore not really necessitating an early day), but it was significantly colder starting out driving at 7AM, which made my growing fever worse. Halfway to the next stop, I was pretty sure I had a full blown fever. So, when I pulled in and checked in, I immediately went to the dorm and huddled up in my blankets to try and get warm and better. Annoyingly, they were in the process of ripping apart several bungalows right outside the dorm, so I didn’t get much sleep.

Sabaidee Guesthouse is a bit of a legend on the Thakhek loop, so I wanted to make sure to stay there. Part of its thing is a BBQ buffet they have every night around a bonfire, which was nice. I was a little curious how they could swing a buffet with meat, since meat is typically pretty expensive in Laos. Turns out the answer is, by having not much meat on each BBQ skewer, and offering a bunch of other cheap foods for people to fill themselves up on, and then charging about double the price of a normal meal. Still, it was fun and a good crowd I wish I could’ve enjoyed more had I been in better shape.

That was my last night on the loop. Now, there are actually a bunch of things in the final stretch (remember, what’s usually the first leg of the loop for most people), but at this point I was feeling pretty terrible, so basically just hauled ass back to Thakhek to return the scooter and get to my next location. I stopped at a Buddha cave which was…pretty lame. My plan had originally been to do both the Thakhek and Pakse loops, but at this point, my poor choices on the Thakhek loop had really taken a toll on me, so I decided to skip it and head straight for the 4000 Islands to hopefully recover.

If I recall, this bus was more SEA crap, some combination of late/overcrowded/breaking down at some point in the night and making us switch. Ohh, right… there were about a million boxes of water bottles, for which they made a stop at a random monastery to unload. It bugs me that they just casually use buses in SEA to double as cargo buses, often putting stuff in your feet area and making extra stops to pick up/drop off the stuff, kind of on your dime/time. Anyway, we finally got to the port city for Don Det, the main island people go to. The area is called the “4000 Islands”, which might confuse you, as Laos is landlocked. However, the islands are created by the Mekong river delta, where it splits into a million tiny rivers, creating some large number (…probably not exactly 4000) of islands.

Is seems like tourist places can be of two types, or a mix between them. There are places where there’s “stuff to do”, like sights, viewpoints, activities, etc. In contrast, there are places where there aren’t really “things” to do; it’s more about the general atmosphere of the place. The 4000 Islands are definitely more like the latter. There are a few things to see, but they really feel like they’re reaching, it’s definitely supposed to be way more of a place to just do nothing. There are dolphins in the river (supposedly there are only 20 left (seems like an oddly specific number…), and they’re actually ugly little Irawaddy dolphins, and no one really spots them anymore apparently), you can do kayak tours, and there are some okay falls to look at, but…the main thing is really just renting a bicycle and biking around the island.

I spent my first day entirely in bed, shivering and sweating. Bungalows were fortunately real cheap (VERY low tech, but private), about $4 a night, so I basically just slept all day. The second day I mostly slept, but felt decent enough to get a bike and ride for a couple hours before I had to go lie down again. The third day I felt almost all better, so was able to see pretty much all of the islands (two are connected via a bridge), but at this point I felt like I had gotten what I wanted to from them and should probably move on.

See you next time in Cambodia!

And others

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