The one in the middle, a hidden gem and a place where people might say “where’s that?”. Laos or Lao is a country situated in South East Asia and is a popular traveller’s destination. It is sandwiched between Thailand, Vietnam and sits on top of Cambodia.
While I was sitting in my room in Phnom Penh and chilling with a fellow traveller (Tristan!), I was thinking about whether to head to Vietnam early and finish the last leg of my trip before heading home. However I had not even thought about going to Laos, it was always in the back of head that I wanted to see it but I would go another time.
From feeling ripped off and scooter tyres exploding, I decided I had, had enough of staying in Cambodia and I wanted somewhere different. Getting from Cambodia to Laos was entertaining and if anyone asks if I would recommend Laos then it would be two thumbs up.
Crossing the border
A lot of travellers will go around looking for the best deal and by this time, I was quite used to just walking around asking every shop for a deal. It is nice to know you saved a few quid which could be used to pay for a room or a few meals but sometimes it is better to go with a renowned shop as you never know what type of bus or tour you are buying into, some people don’t mind but it is something to bear in mind.
However actually getting to Laos from Phnom Penh proved to be an issue! A lady I chatted to said I would have to go back to Kampot in order to go back up and cross the border into Laos, a 9 hour bus down to Kampot then another 13 hour bus up to Laos. Hell no! I decided to return to the hostel desk and book a bus from them even though it cost about $32. It turned out that the company (Sorya) had stopped this service. Oh tricky!
I decided that I would just have to walk around and see if there was even a bus from Phnom Penh to Laos otherwise. It turns out there are rows of transport bus companies next to the night market. Luckily enough I met a Cambodian Australian chap called Blackie and he said he could offer me a ticket up to 4000 islands for $25 (excluding boat fare to the island). Happy days!
So it turned out that I actually had a seat in a private van full of locals, which I didn’t mind at all. The van was quick, the views were really nice and I did end up getting to Stung Teng near the border. I did have to buy an extra ticket to get a boat to Don det for $5 but that was fine. However one warning I will give is, keep any US dollars to exchange at the border because the rate there was better than before the border and even in Lao as they offer better rates. If you want to exchange money on Don Det or the other islands than the exchange rate is worse.
When you reach the border then you have to fill in some forms as usual, sometimes the border officer will ask if you want them to fill in the form but you will have to pay them a tip, don’t bother its self explanatory. However once you cross the border then you will have to pay a “processing fee” which is unofficial but you have to do it if you don’t want to be waiting for hours. I read that some travellers argued the fee and were let through but I can only imagine how long that took. This fee is only about $3 altogether but just make sure you have enough US dollars and small notes. Another thing to note is that they dislike accepting Laos Kip (their currency) and if they do, the exchange rate is awful!
Getting the visa was straightforward and you will have to pay a visa fee which is official (around $30) for one month. However the chap managed to muck up and spelt my name wrong. The remedy for this was of course using tippex! I found it pretty funny but at least I could cross into Laos now.
The name for the area comes from the number of islands you can see, some big and some small but the two main islands that were recommended were Don Det and Don Khon. I would recommend staying on Don Det as it is cheaper and there are more backpackers on this island. I stayed at Mama Piangs as I had read good things about the rooms and that Mama Piang was an excellent cook (the stories were true!). She was always friendly and made me laugh, so I would definitely recommend spending a night here at the very least.
The views from Don Det across the Mekong were breathtaking and it looked as if time was going backwards as the river flowed. The quietness and layout of the homes were all geared towards relaxation and was truly a breath of fresh air.
The highlights of staying on Don Det were definitely the Mekong kayak tour and eating at Mama Piangs. However if you want a change of scenery you can cycle across a French bridge to explore Don Khon.
Mekong Kayak Don Det
The cost of the tour was $20 and there was little room to bargain, if you have the numbers then you can probably get an extra $2-3 off. What is included:
- Tour guide and kayak (of course)
- Breakfast and Lunch (don’t expect anything special)
- Entrance fee to waterfalls
- Boat transport and possible viewing of Irrawaddy dolphins (endangered and very rare)
My best advice would to be just to book the tour via your accommodation as this would be easiest as the prices are all fixed.
Take a bus up towards Pakse, some travellers I met got off early at Champasak but I decided I wanted to head to Pakse and explore the Bolaven route. What is it you ask?
This part of Lao lies on several elevations creating plateaus and as a result, there are a lot of beautiful views and waterfalls throughout this loop. I would highly recommend doing the loop as it is breathtaking and as there isn’t much to do in Pakse city. The loop requires a minimum of 2 days but can extend up to 5 days if you want to do the long loop. I rented my scooter from Lao Adventurer travel as they gave me a good deal on a night bus and scooter rental. However a lot of people recommended Miss Noy bikes. I will add a map of the loop but what I really enjoyed was:
- Tad Champee (Tad means Waterfall)
- Mr Vieng’s Coffee plant and homestay
- Tad Lo
- Tad Yuang and Tad Champi
I only did the short loop but I highly recommend going to Mr Vieng’s coffee plant and seeing the waterfall circuit towards the end of the loop. Mrs Vieng’s cooking was amazing and buying fresh coffee beans from the plant and learning about the process was also amazing. Some pictures of the homestay below.
Views of the waterfalls along the Bolaven plateau
I went straight to the North of Laos as I wanted to visit Luang Prabang before heading Vang Vieng. There wasn’t much to see in Luang Prabang and it is incredibly touristy but the two things I did enjoy here were Kuang Si waterfall and the night market they had. The night market also has an outdoor food market which serves incredible food which is also cheap.
The Kuang si waterfalls were immense and there are few options to get there:
- Rent a bike 30,000 Kip
- Private shared van 40,000 Kip
- Taxi 150,000 Kip
Let me just get this straight. Do not rent a bicycle. The inner Scrooge in me rented a bicycle and everything went wrong from the outset, spend the extra 10,000 kip. I read a few blogs where they recommended cycling as it was nice but it will take about 2 hours to get to the waterfalls. I forgot to factor in the amount of hills and the intense heat that I would be cycling in. However i’ll never forget cycling in Lao ever!
I managed to make it to Kuang Si waterfalls and on the way back I was going to treat myself to some buffalo ice cream but I managed to lose my wallet on the way back. So I actually had to cycle back to the waterfalls to look (which added an extra hour to my journey back to the hostel) and all I could remember was that it felt like I was cycling through the depths of Hell, the heat was too much!
As it turns out, I had given my entrance ticket to the waterfalls to another cyclist and I must’ve dropped my wallet afterwards as I had pretty shallow pockets. As a result of this, I had to cancel two credit cards and lost about £15 and so instead of going to Vang Vieng, I went straight to Vientiane in order to save the last of my money before heading to Vietnam. In hindsight, I was pretty lucky to not take everything with me.
I learned my lesson, only take out the cash you need for the day!
The national dish of Lao is Laap, which is a mixture of ground meat, mint and other herbs usually served with sticky rice.
The food in Lao does overlap with Thailand and Vietnam as they have their version of Som Tam (papaya salad) and Pho (vietnamese noodle soup). The food is so varied and really good value for money but my favourite dish throughout had to be pork with holy basil.
- Take as much US dollars as you can, if you are in Cambodia then just withdraw the maximum amount and carry it with you
- Exchange a small amount into kip at the Cambodian-Lao border and then change more in the larger cities but if you exchange on 4000 islands then the rate will be lower but not that bad
- Explore the Bolaven loop in Pakse and if you are really into motorcycle touring then you can do the Thakek loop
- Try the Lao coffee, although not the best coffee in the world, it is still quite good
- The food in Lao can be quite spicy, just a warning.