>Our first introduction to Laos was on the Mekong River. Due to the lack of decently drivable roads in Laos, the most common way to get into the country from northern Thailand is via a two day boat trip. Sound fun? Well it was, despite the horror stories we heard! Chanting our mantra “It’s part of the experience”, we board the boat with 100+ people on wooden benches that are too narrow for anyones ass, and settle in to our two day routine of meeting cool people, drinking the wonderfully cheap BeerLao, chilling, reading, pondering, stretching your legs, rubbing your sore ass, pacing, and meeting even MORE cool people. The greatest thing about the Laos/Cambodia/Vietnam loop is that since there is one main tourist path, the people you meet at the beginning of the trek you will see in almost every city throughout your trek. How fun is that?! We ended up travelling with a Canadian couple and a few kiwis along the way, welcome additions to our ragged and smelly group.
Our first night was in a hole of a town along the river, called Pakbeng. We were offered everything from cheap alcohol to marijuana to opium…and all on the way from the boat to the guesthouse! Quite sketch, but we only paid $1 for the room, including a bathroom where the sinks were not attached to any piping. It was quite hilarious to watch people spit on their own feet while brushing their teeth. Dinner and beers included a free bottle of Laolao rice whiskey moonshine! Can’t go wrong…until you try it!
The second day of the boat trip was similar, but MORE packed as they pulled a fast one on us and gave us a significantly smaller boat for the same number of people…not only were there not enough seats, there wasn’t enough FLOOR space for everyone! The crew had to tiptoe around the gunnel of the boat to get from bow to stern! The captain also liked to put the boat into slow 360 degree turns every time we came to a local port. Strange, because there seemed no purpose for them whatsoever, so we just assumed he was showing off his awesome boating skills. Hell, I’d do it too if I were him. He even put us through a slow 540 once. Awesome.
Along the river were many tiny villages, growing corn and smaller crops right along the riverbanks. Children would crowd the shore when our boat neared, trying to catch a glimpse of the rich farang aboard. Quaint and beautiful, with locals living in bamboo huts with thatched rooves and often without electricity, I often wondered what it would be like to step off the boat into their world, with no outside contact, and where everything is done by the sweat of your own brow. A truly different experience.
One of our stops in Laos was Vang Vieng, home of the legendary tubing adventure. This city is made for backpackers. From cafes playing nonstop Friends, the Simpsons, or Family Guy to dozens of bars all offering free shots and drink deals and of COURSE the unforgettable tubing experience, there is enough to keep any 20-something year old busy! Our first night we sat down (on floor cushions, of course) at a bamboo restaurant overlooking a beautiful sunset behind massive limestone cliffs on the Mekong river, just next to two chickens duking it out and a lost cow that was getting upset at a fence blocking its way.
What used to be, 3 years ago, a chillout day in a tube on a river, hanging at a few bars and having a beer or two has blown up into a full-on all day river party. Starting as soon as you get off the tuk-tuk, you walk past a bar offering free shots and cheap beers. Why not take one for the road (err…river)?! So we do, and hop in our tubes to start the day…30 metres down the river we are assaulted with bamboo poles and water bottles on strings, cast by staff at the next bar. ALREADY?? …Alright. We hang out here for a while, partaking in diving boards, ziplining over the water, and a GIANT-trapeze-like thing that is built up in a huge tree! You can climb the tree, grab onto the bar, and swing out over the river, letting go about 10-15 metres in the air before plunging into the artificially deepened river. Sounds FUN! The rest of the day progressed similarly, with TONS of party animal tourists, some beach volleyball, HUGE waterslides, and of course more free shots of Laolao whiskey. At the end of it all, we have a lazy 1 hour drift back home. Should have left while the sun was still up, that’s for sure!
Our next trek: down the nearly 1000 km stretch of Laos to the deep south, where the beautiful 4000 islands (Si Phan Don) rests peacefully on the border between Laos and Cambodia! A rather long journey, involving a sleeper BUS…never seen that before! Normally on sleeper trains, one seat is upper bunk and one seat is lower bunk…but on this bus, it was two per bed! Good thing we were travelling with friends!
A cozy night’s sleep on the bus to Si Phan Don!
Si Phan Don itself was a laidback riverside paradise. The main tourist islands offer little more than tiny bamboo bungalow huts along the river, with local families often living on the same property. Electricity is unheard of in our guesthouse, but then again we are only paying $3 per night…for both of us! Some more “expensive” ($5) huts have generator power until around 10 o’clock. Bike rental is $1 a day, supremely affordable even if just heading to the beach for a few hours. And beach there is, out into the refreshing Mekong with beautiful waterfalls upstream to boot! Our huts looked right out over the river and an archipelago of smaller islands directly into the sunset, which we watched each night from our favorite restaurant. We managed to befriend the waiters at the restaurant, and went to cheer them on at their local boat races, a big competition between the islands. Despite all the stares from the locals at our uncommon white skin, everyone was SUPER friendly and open here, even inviting us to sit down for shots of Laolao and a conversation at times! Backpacker paradise indeed!