Here we are with our second October break of living abroad and I can hardly believe it’s come round so fast. This time last year we went to Ankor Wat in Cambodia and had a very relaxing time there. This time we planned a trip to Laos (and by we I mean Lindsey).
There is some confusion over the correct pronunciation of Laos – with the ‘s’ or without. It was explained to us, by a local, that if you are referring to the language or the people then you don’t pronounce the ‘s’ but if you are simply referring to the one word country then you do. In fact the official name is now the Lao People’s Democratic Republic so maybe it won’t be much of an issue any more.
Our first stop, as always via Bangkok, was Vientiane, the capital. Lindsey picked a fabulous hotel which presented you with a free glass of wine upon arrival, a free bottle of wine in your room refreshed every day and a complimentary mini-bar! Why don’t more hotels offer that I wonder. Included in the mini bar was two cans of Beer Lao, the local beer, and I have to say I think it is the best of the Asian beers I’ve had so far. The hotel also overlooked the Mekong River which runs next to the city with Thailand on the other side. Laos was part of France for about 60 years which has left it’s mark in the architecture and food. Like Vietnam it was funny to see baguettes available for breakfast and there are many French style bakeries there.
As we flew in to the capital I was surprised that near the airport there were very few paved roads that you could see from the air. This is all the more surprising since the airport was close to the centre. The airport itself gives you an idea of how small the city is as it’s one of those airports where you get off the plane and casually walk across to the terminal building over the tarmac. Vientiane itself was in party mood as there was a festival just starting but even allowing for that, the city was fairly sleepy. If you die and never make it to Vientiane you won’t have missed much to be honest. I’m glad we went as we had some great food, and there were some lovely temples but it’s not somewhere we are going to put on the repeat visit list.
Next up was a flight to Luang Namtha in order to go on something called a ‘Gibbon Experience’. I’ll let Lindsey fill you in on the details of our homestay which we weren’t really prepared for although we survived without mishap. The next day we were picked up with a number of other guests and driven on a rather hair raising jungle road to a village in the jungle with an eco lodge. With very little explanation of what might happen next we were then herded out of the Lodge and taken on a hike for maybe an hour to a hut where we were given some equipment. There was something on the website about being in relatively good condition which we didn’t think much about but totally weren’t prepared for the uphill hiking required over the next two days. Principally, the ‘Gibbon Experience’ is about zip lining. If you go you need to think of it as experiencing the environment of a gibbon as opposed to actually seeing one.
I’m sure that the equipment we were given was in good condition and well maintained and they said they changed the zip lines every year which makes sense considering the weather but in the main there wasn’t too much about safety and the guides didn’t really speak English well enough to be understood. We had one go on a zip line about 15 meters long and then it was straight to the 200 meter plus zip lines over gorges of maybe 200 meters or more deep. The zip lining was great fun although Lindsey annoyingly always made it the whole way whereas I stopped short a good 10 plus meters from the end and had to go hand over hand to get in.
At night we stayed in a fantastic tree house which was about 35 meters (115 feet) up in the air. It had a spectacular view of the jungle and a great open air shower. We shared it with 4 other people who were student back-packers and all slept in the main room on mats with mosquito nets. Our dinner was zip lined in with the guides at which point the tree visibly shook. The next day we zip-lined in to visit another tree house just as some actual gibbons showed up. They were quite close so we got a really good view but I didn’t have my camera with me as it is too heavy. (It’s time to change systems. Olympus, here I come.) It was fantastic to see the gibbons on their level and wonderful to see them swinging through the trees (that’s called brachiating by the way).
The next morning we saw more gibbons from our own tree house albeit at much greater distance. The best part of that experience was hearing them first. Their morning calls are wonderful to listen to and not at all what you would expect. Judging by the guides we were definitely incredibly lucky to see them twice. It seems that about 1 in 5 groups see them. 1 couple who cam in with us and had a tree house to themselves didn’t see them at all.
The holiday we needed from the holiday was perfectly served up by a lovely boat ride down the Mekong to yet another wonderful hotel chosen by Lindsey overlooking the river. There were only 8 people on the boat so at times it felt like we were on our own. The Mekong in places was quite narrow and often full of dangerous looking rocks. It was definitely a job for a skilled captain which we fortunately had. A further trip down the Mekong then took us to Luang Prabang and yet another awesome hotel. The whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage site I think because it is thought to be where the first people coming from Africa settled about 10,000 years ago. The Lilly ponds around which our hotel was built also had some special protection and you could see why . You’d think the place would be a complete nightmare for mosquitos but there weren’t any. It was something to do with the perfect eco system of a pond where there are enough predators to keep eating any mosquito eggs.
Luang Prabang was a total gem of a place and well worth a visit if you ever come to South East Asia. It is full of beautiful temples and fantastic restaurants and has a night market which has things you might want to actually buy. We did in fact buy some material but it was from a village where you almost everyone had a rickety looking loom in front of their house. One of its highlights is a short drive passing a few touristy sites along the way like butterfly and buffalo farms. We were dropped off in a parking lot and then went into a kind of forest reserve that has a mesmerising series of waterfalls. You could go and swim in some of the pools which we duly did and there was also a Moon Bear Sanctuary with some very treasurable looking rescued bears.
This was a really nice trip but we crammed in a bit too much. If I had to do it again, I’d probably skip Vientiane and spend more time in Luang Prabang. Roll on Thanksgiving for our next trip, this time to the beach.