Category: Laos

Laos to Cambodia – A Journey Not To Be Repeated

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Crossing the border from Laos to Cambodia should be easy, right? When a travel agent in Laos tell you that you’ll be getting a direct bus from the border, you expect to get a direct bus from the border. Of course, this wasn’t the case and thoroughly rounded up my case that all transport in Laos is a bit rubbish. Here’s the length of time the journey should’ve taken:

Leaving Laos

As the heading suggests, the journey to Phnom Penh was not one of my favourites. I’d booked a ticket from Don Det, Laos, to Phnom Penh. This whole trip cost around $23. Something which really grinds my gears about travelling in South East Asia, is the waiting around. Waiting, always waiting, yet no one seems to know why. I got the boat from Don Det to Nakasong at 8am. I waited for over an hour to get a bus to the Cambodian border. This was probably the most comfortable vehicle I travelled in all day, even with its limited leg room.

Border Scams

The guy who seemed to be in charge of organising the trip to the border offered to sort our visa out for $40. This is unnecessary – it’s simple enough to do yourself without the extra cost. He did get a little rude with us when we refused.

I paid $2 for an exit stamp from Laos. And yes, I’d already read that this is a scam, and yes, I knew that technically I didn’t have to pay it, but considering you can’t enter Cambodia without a Laos exit stamp, what was I supposed to do?

The Cambodia border was slightly better. Only the ‘quarantine’ scam was open to us (hint: walk straight past them). They’ll tell you that you need the form if you need medical treatment in Cambodia. This is a complete lie – I ended up in the hospital in Cambodia and not one staff member asked for my quarantine form. A visa can be obtained on arrival for $35.

Finally in Cambodia

By this point, it’s heading towards lunch time. The whole group had to wait by the border for around an hour to get transport to our next destination. 16 of us squeezed into a minivan with our luggage, heading for a destination unknown to us. We knew we had to stop somewhere as the group was a mixture of tourists going to either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.

We stopped at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere but close to Stung Treng. We were there for perhaps an hour when a minivan came to pick up the group heading towards Phnom Penh. There were empty seats in the minivan, which seemed too good to be true. Of course, it was. About 5 minutes later we were dropped off and told to get on another bus. The bus was full. As in, the driver was sharing his seat full.

It took over half an hour to leave Stung Treng. Once we finally got moving, the driver kept stopping to pour water on the front of the bus which kept overheating.

The bus arrived in Kratie around 5pm and we had to change buses there. We were put in the back of a minivan. By this point, I was one of two westerners left travelling to Phnom Penh. We were in the back with no legroom and squished next to everyone’s luggage. Everyone else on the minivan seemed squashed as there were double the amount of people there should’ve been.

We spent 5 hours crammed in the back of the minivan, music blaring, legs cramping, but we made it to Phnom Penh!

What I Learned

  • Transport in Laos is officially the worst in South East Asia (I’m yet to experience Vietnam or Myanmar but I’ll keep you posted!)
  • Don’t attempt the journey from Don Det to Phnom Penh in one day. Maybe stop in Kratie or go to Siem Reap.
  • Always take extra dollars for land borders.

Want to read more? Check out my posts about my time in Laos!

 

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Don Det – Four Thousand Islands

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Don Det is an island in the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) archipelago in the southern part of Laos. Here’s where it’s situated in Laos:

Getting There

I decided to take a huge gamble and travel from Vang Vieng to Don Det in one journey. Looking back, this may not have been the best idea. Nevertheless, I did arrive there in one piece. I started on a mini bus from Vang Vieng-Vientiane which was probably the most comfortable aspect of the journey despite the windy roads and need-for-speed driver. Vientiane-Pakse was to be a night bus. This was basically a bus with no seats and mattresses on the floor. I had very little space even though I’m 5’5″. I feel sorry for anyone over 6ft!

The final part of the journey felt like the longest. I arrived in Pakse around 6.30am. The bus to Si Phan Don arrived within 30 minutes and we loaded our luggage on. Unfortuantely, for us, someone had left a bag of garbage on the bus and it smelled terrible. Once the bus finally got moving, it was apparent that the air con was not working. The bus wasn’t even half full, so our driver kept calling his friends and waiting at the side of the road for them for up to half an hour to catch the bus. By this point, I’d been travelling for over 20 hours, I was hungry and tired and was less than impressed with the driver waiting for so long in the heat for his friends. Eventually, the bus arrived in Nakasong – 23 hours after I’d left Vang Vieng!

The last leg of the journey was to catch a boat from Nakasong to Don Det.

don det pier four thousand islands laos Alex Explores the World

Don Det Pier

Activities in Don Det

There’s a tour which every tour company in Don Det sells and it’s the one every tourist ends up doing. The tour is similarly priced regardless of where it’s booked (I paid 170,000kip). The tour is a day of kayaking around different parts of Four Thousand Islands, including visiting two waterfalls and seeing Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong. The tour includes breakfast and lunch.

I booked the tour with a friend and we arrived at the meeting point for breakfast at 8.30am. I had scrambled eggs for breakfast but there were other options to choose from, such as pancakes and fruit. The group left at 9.30am in kayaks. The first section of river was relatively straightforward, although towards the end there was a lot of ‘island’ dodging (by islands, I mean tangles of reeds/bushes – this is why this area is called Four Thousand Islands). Some people in the group were unable to dodge these ‘islands’ and ended up capsizing. Funny for us, probably less funny for them. The guides should probably have checked that everyone was competent enough to kayak.

We walked to the first waterfall of the day – a torrent of rushing water. The guides spent a while attempting, and succeeding, to catch fish with their hands. We had lunch by the side of the river which was a mix of mashed potatoes, bread, skewers, and vegetables. There was very little shade by the river so we were exposed to the intensity of the midday sun.

Waterfalls & Dolphins

After lunch, it was time to get back into the kayaks, this time in search of Irrawaddy dolphins. We kayaked down the Mekong, close to the border with Cambodia. We were lucky enough to spot a few dolphins from a distance. A rainstorm rolled in so we paddled as fast as we could to get out of the torrential rain, to no avail.

The next stop was to see the largest waterfall in South East Asia (by volume), Khonephapheng Falls.

don det waterfall khonephapheng falls laos four thousand islands Alex Explores the World

It certainly wasn’t the most spectacular waterfall to look at, but the sheer volume of water makes it impressive.

The last activity of the day was to kayak from Nakasong back to Don Det. By this point I was sunburnt, tired and eager for a shower. We paddled back as quickly as our arms would allow, racing the other kayakers.

don det sunset four thousand islands laos Alex Explores the World

Where to Stay

I stayed in Don Det for 3 nights which was more than enough for me. The first night I stayed in one of the typical riverside bungalows which are all over the island. These wooden bungalows are very basic and very cheap – only 40,000 kip per night. There was a fan in the room and an ensuite. For the next couple of nights I stayed in a guesthouse called Mama Leurth’s which was 60,000 kip per night and was a lot nicer than the riverside bungalow. This room had the option of air con for an additional cost and had wifi in the rooms.

Final Thoughts

Don Det was a lovely final stop in Laos. I enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of this small island. I went in low season so there were plenty of accommodation options. There are many restaurants on the island which all offer reasonably priced food. I felt like Don Det was more relaxed than the other places I’d visited in Laos and is a must visit for anyone in the area!

To read more about Laos, see my posts about Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.

 

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Vang Vieng – What’s Left Of The Former Party Town?

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Vang Vieng, former party haven in Laos, was to be my next stop. Infamous for tubing, until the deaths of a number of foreigners forced the government to close almost all of the bars in 2012, I’d heard that Vang Vieng was still fun to visit. Was it all it was cracked up to be? Let’s see…

Getting There

As I mentioned in my last post, getting to Vang Vieng was an adventure in itself. I travelled by minivan with a group from the guesthouse I’d been staying in, in Luang Prabang. The minivan driver had a real need for speed and used the windy roads as his own personal racetrack. This is not unusual in South East Asia but it tends to be scarier when the roads are on the edge of mountains. The minivan reached a section of unsurfaced road, which coincided with being in the clouds. I looked out of the window and it was almost like looking into the abyss. Somehow, we made it through without falling off the edge of a mountain.luang prabang to vang vieng laos Alex Explores the World

The driver decided to stop just before sunset, a move welcomed by everyone in the van. The bar we stopped at had the worst karaoke I’ve ever heard which was bad news for all of those in the minivan nursing a hangover. The journey soon resumed and I continued listening to an ‘All Time Party Classics’ playlist on Spotify. Darkness fell and suddenly the driver stopped the minivan.

“You each pay me 5,000 kip and I’ll drop you in the centre of town. If you don’t pay, I’ll drop you off at the bus station where you’ll have to pay 5,000 kip to a tuk-tuk driver.”

Fortunately, the majority of us were on the same wavelength and we told the driver to drop us off at the bus station. There was no way we’d be giving him any extra money after we’d already paid for our ticket to Vang Vieng. The driver, in fact, did drop us off in the centre for no extra cost. Ideal, because our hostel was in the centre of Vang Vieng.

Where’s the party?

The bizarre thing about Vang Vieng was that during the day the place was a ghost town then at night the place would start to gain some life. The busiest bar was Sakura, a bar anyone travelling South East Asia will likely have heard of from the free tank tops they hand out with the purchase of 2 drinks.  I went to Sakura once, had a couple of drinks then left. In that short amount of time, I witnessed a fight between 2 guys which is slightly unusual for the backpacker scene. Gary’s Irish Bar offered a more chilled out scene and a pool competition. Apparently, they also screen Game of Thrones on Monday nights. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed with Vang Vieng’s party scene. Fortunately, I wasn’t really looking for a party scene.

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Adventures in Vang Vieng

Every other shop in Vang Vieng is a travel agency so booking a tour is simple. I chose one that included tubing, kayaking and a trip to the Blue Lagoon. The first part of the tour involved tubing through a cave. I really enjoyed this, pulling myself through a cave, wearing a headlamp the whole thing was fun. There was a point where we passed another group tubing through the cave and someone thought it would be funny to start splashing water. Suddenly, almost everyone was splashing water. I was busy shielding my eyes and by the time we’d passed the other group, I realised my GoPro had fallen off my wrist. One of the guides was kind enough to come back and help me look for it. Luckily, the water in the cave was shallow so the guide found it in no time.

The second part of the day was kayaking 8km down the river. This was easygoing kayaking and halfway through we stopped at Mr LaoLao, the only bar that appeared to be open on the tubing route.The bar was very quiet and was blasting out dance music. Perhaps in the past, this bar would’ve been busy but it certainly wasn’t  the day we were there. I only saw about 5 people tubing on the river that day. There were some cute kittens in the bar which was a bonus!

After kayaking, we got a tuk-tuk to the Blue Lagoon. It’s basically an outdoor pool with places to jump in. The water is freezing but it’s a nice place to relax with plenty of places to soak up the sun.

 

Final Thoughts

Ok, so the kayaking and tubing were really fun but they certainly weren’t the party they’d been hyped up to be. I think Vang Vieng is in a transition stage between its recent party days and it’s future as an adventure holiday destination. Perhaps in a few years it will be very different to the Vang Vieng I found a few weeks ago.

 

 

 

 

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Luang Prabang – Home to SE Asia’s Most Beautiful Waterfall

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After three days of travelling, to say I was relieved to be in Luang Prabang would be an understatement. After a crazy few weeks in Thailand, I was very much ready to have a break from the party scene. Perhaps Luang Prabang could offer me some much-needed respite. The first order of business was to find somewhere to sleep so I hopped into a tuk-tuk with my slow boat friends to a guesthouse. The guesthouse was nice enough and cheap enough so we all booked rooms.

A Different Sort of Going Out

We went out in search of some good, cooked food and bumped into an American family who we met on the slow boat. They were going to a restaurant for some traditional Laos food and invited us to join them. We accepted and enjoyed some Laos dishes – most of which were fish based. After dinner, we went for a few drinks at Utopia, a bar that doubles as a yoga studio during the day. Utopia had a relaxed atmosphere – a world away from the loud bars in Thailand. All bars in Luang Prabang close at 11.30pm, which seems a little early. Not quite. When leaving Utopia, we found there were many tuk-tuks waiting to take us bowling. Everyone hopped into a tuk-tuk and we went to the local bowling alley, which stays open until 2am.bowling alley luang prabang laos Alex Explores the World

Kuang Si Waterfalls

The following day, we went to Kuang Si Waterfall, one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. We paid 25,000 kip for a return journey in a tuk-tuk and it’s around an hour drive on windy roads. Entrance to the waterfall is 20,000 kip and includes a visit to the moon bear conservation project. Moon bears are captured for their bile, which is used in traditional Asian medicine. They are also used in circus acts because of their natural ability to stand on their hind legs. (For more information about moon bears, check out Animals Asia)

kuang si falls luang prabang laos Alex Explores the WorldThe Kuang Si waterfalls are truly something special. I’ve never seen such a beautiful waterfall. The falls are a beautiful turquoise colour – caused by the water flowing through limestone. Some pools are good for swimming in, others are just for photos.  There are so many tiers to this waterfall, it’s incredible! We spent a couple of hours swimming and taking pictures before heading back to our tuk-tuk.kuang si falls luang prabang laos Alex Explores the World

 

Night Market

That evening, I went to the night market with a few people from the guesthouse. The vendors were selling a wide variety of foods – skewers, baguettes, an all you can eat veggie buffet, shakes, pancakes… it was never ending.IMG_6732

On the final day, I went for a walk around the Old Quarter of Luang Prabang. I discovered that the palace and museum are closed on Tuesdays, unfortunately only after I’d reached the palace. I visited Wat Xieng Thong (also known as Golden City Temple) simply because I’d heard it was the most beautiful in town. I went to the top of Mount Phousi (20,000 kip) where it’s possible to view almost all of Luang Prabang. The red roofs reminded me of European cities.IMG_6746

IMG_6767At 2.30pm, I got a minivan to Vang Vieng along with many of the people I’d met on the slow boat, thus concluding my stay in Luang Prabang. The trip to Vang Vieng had it’s own (literal) ups and downs, which I’ll be talking about in my next post.

To conclude…

I’ve long since left Laos, but I can honestly say that Luang Prabang was my favourite place in Laos. The mountains surrounding the city are stunning and the Old Quarter left from the French colonial days is beautifully quaint.  If there’s one place in Laos I’d recommend heading to, it’s Luang Prabang.

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Chiang Mai to Laos – A 3 Day Slow Boat Adventure

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After four days in Chiang Mai, and my Thai visa almost at an end, I decided to travel from Chiang Mai to Laos on the slow boat. I’d heard good things about the slow boat to Luang Prabang from fellow travellers so decided that was the best way to get there.

The White Temple – Chiang Rai

The bus collected me from my Chiang Mai accommodation (The Living Place 1 – I highly recommend staying here, the owner, Aree, is lovely and very helpful) at 9.30am. We had one stop off before going to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. I actually think the White Temple was my favourite temple in the whole of Thailand. It was a little bit spooky which I really liked and it’s so different to many other temples in Thailand.

floating heads white temple chiang rai thailand Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

Recognise any of these?

white temple chiang rai thailand Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

These heads are all over the White Temple

white temple chiang rai thailand Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

The White Temple

white temple chiang rai thailand Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

Spooky walkway into the White Temple

chiang rai white temple thailand Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

This guy permanently sits outside the White Temple

white temple traffic cone chiang rai thailand Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

Chiang Rai has some very sinister traffic cones

Chiang Khong

We arrived in Chiang Khong, a Thai border town around 3.30pm. The town was incredibly quiet especially as it was low season. We were given a voucher for dinner, breakfast and lunch which was included in the ticket price. We stayed at a place called Portside which was supposed to have WiFi, but it didn’t seem to work. A group of us went to get the free dinner which turned out to be fried rice. Hardly the best food in Thailand. Fortunately, there was a 7-eleven a few minutes away so we could buy some extra food.

Bugged Out

When we arrived back to the hotel, there were hundreds of bugs in the reception area which the staff didn’t seem too bothered about. I was lucky enough to have a room to myself and a working fan but other people in the group weren’t so lucky. Breakfast the next morning was some kind of omelette in a toasted sandwich. We went to the Thai border with our departure cards so that we could officially leave Thailand. We then took a bus across to the Laos border, which cost 25 baht, the price of which was already included in our slow boat ticket.

Laos Border

The Laos border is not a fast process. First, there are two forms to fill in. Then it’s a $35 fee (plus an overtime charge of $1 at weekends). Because this is done by the bus load, it ends up taking a while. On the bright side, there’s an ATM at the border which dispenses Laos currency (kip) and the fees are 20,000 Kip (£2). The owner of the hotel in Chiang Khong tried to tell us that there are fees of $10USD at Laos ATM’s, but I suspect that was a ploy to try to encourage us to change money with him at a poor rate.

Once we’d crossed the border, we got a minivan to the pier where we’d be getting the slow boat. A guy took our passports for a few minutes whilst he sorted out the tickets for the slow boat. There was a shop where we could buy snacks, drinks and alcohol for the journey. I actually recommend buying from here as it’s cheaper than the slow boat. It’s also possible to get sandwiches, which I also recommend, as the only hot food option on the boat is instant noodles.

Time passes really slowly on the slow boat so I definitely recommend bringing some form of entertainment, whether this be a book, cards or a journal.

slow boat laos mekong Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laosslow boat views mekong laos Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laosslow boat views mekong Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

Pakbeng… a.k.a Marco Polo’s Drug Hotel

At the end of the first day we stayed in a Laos village somewhere along the Mekong called Pakbeng. The accommodation there was basic, to say the least. The place became known as ‘Marco Polo’s Drug Hotel’ amongst the group because the owner was constantly trying to sell us drugs. In fact, many residents of the town were trying to sell us drugs before we even got off the boat.

As I just mentioned, the accommodation was very basic. Here are a few things we had to contend with:

  • The door didn’t lock from the inside, causing us to barricade the door with our bags overnight.
  • The transformer was incredibly dodgy so the power in the room kept going out because the switch kept falling off the wall.
  • There were live electrics next to the shower.
  • There were bars on the window, but no glass or mosquito net, leaving insects to come and go as they pleased.

From other travellers I spoke to, most accommodation in this village is of a similar standard. Luckily there is a bar -Happy Bar which is alright. They have beerpong and darts for entertainment and one of their drink options is a banana whisky shake.

The following morning we were eager to leave our accommodation, even with the prospect of 8 hours on the slow boat. We were the last group on the boat so got seats near the back of the boat. Again, the scenery throughout the day was spectacular. I managed to fill the day by playing Heads Up! with people and reading.

views Pakbeng slow boat Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laosslow boat views mekong Alex Explores the World - Chiang Mai to Laos

The Scam

The boat stops 10km outside Luang Prabang. It also stops in Luang Prabang but all foreign passengers are made to get off at the first stop. I’d already read about this on other blogs, and whilst it is grossly unfair, there isn’t really much you can do about it. It costs 20,000kip to get into the centre of Luang Prabang in a tuk-tuk.

Final Thoughts

Accommodation and food might be basic but I actually had a great time on the boat. I made some really good friends, some of whom I ended up travelling further into Laos with. The scam at the end of the trip where foreigners are made to get off the boat and pay for a tuk-tuk isn’t fair. I would be embarrassed if British companies were treating foreign tourists in a similar way. After spending a couple of weeks in Laos, I would say that the slow boat is the most comfortable way to travel from Chiang Mai to Laos on a budget.

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