Luang Prabang (say that 3 times fast) was our first stop in Laos, and it did not disappoint. Coming from Chiang Mai, there are 3 ways to get to get there, as we spent days debating each one before deciding what one we wanted to go for.
- Option 1 – the slow boat. This is a fairly popular option with backpackers as it allows you to ‘travel like a local’ and see villages and the river in ways you wouldn’t otherwise see. For this option, you take a bus from Chiang Mai to the border of Laos, where you then change to the slow boat which takes two days to chug up the river before depositing you in Luang Prabang. Although one of the cheapest options, you have to spend the night in a guesthouse along the river where their only income is foreign travelers making this trip and so they can charge any price they want as you have no other options. Also, the boat is open top, with tiny plastic chairs or car seats (if you get one at all), so be prepared to deal with weather (both hot and cold) and to be fairly uncomfortable.
- Option 2 – A bus all the way. This seems to also be a common way to travel, and there are a few different options for times which is nice. You get on a bus in Chiang Mai which takes you to the border, go through customs, and then get onto a different Laos bus to take you the rest of the way to Luang Prabang. Still fairly cheap, but you’re looking at around 14 hours travel (with stops at the border, as well as for bathroom breaks) on a crowded sleeper bus. Not a bad option if you’re under 5’6; however, anyone taller than that (or if you’re not super slim and petite) will struggle to fit into the ‘beds’. I also read many stories online where they prioritize local people so that they get the newest buses and the best seats/beds, and backpackers are dealt with last and are stuck where ever they can find room (sometimes not even in a legitimate seat). Equally, there are also stories online of people having a great time with no issues, so take your chances!
- Option 3 – Fly. Yes, you can get a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang that takes just over an hour and has none of the hassle. Granted, it is a fair bit more expensive then the other two options (but still pretty cheap for western standards), but you do get a free in flight snack (water and a tuna sandwich) and pretty good leg room. Plus, a full extra day of exploring Luang Prabang.
We umm’d and ahh’d for days trying to decide which one to do. On one hand – the slow boat is a cool experience and not something we’ll ever really get to do again, but it’s super slow and uncomfortable. One the other hand – flying is fast and comfortable, but it’s much more expensive. In the end, due to timing constraints and knowing how poorly I deal with being uncomfortable, too cold/too hot, and being hungry (guaranteed to happen on a boat), we booked flights instead of the boat and I have no regrets.
Laos is a country where you have to have a visa to enter, although you can get one on arrival. After spending a week at ENP with no wifi and then going to Chiang Rai for our last 2 days in Thailand, I’ll admit that we kind of forgot about the visa requirement until we were boarding our plane. Too late to do anything about it, we shrugged and continued on our way with our fingers crossed, hoping that it wouldn’t be too much of an issue once we got there. And it wasn’t. Kind of.
When you arrive at the airport in Luang Prabang (which is tiny), you’re asked for your passport and an extra passport sized photo of yourself. We had our passports, but no extra picture (because who travels with an extra passport picture?!), and we weren’t sure how this would go down.
Side note – Laos has a closed currency and they often prefer USD to their own money, Kip. We had no USD and no Kip on us, although we did have some left over Thai Baht (but not enough to pay for the visa).
When we said we had no extra pictures, the lady at customs shrugged and told us it would be a dollar instead. As we had no USD, she very kindly took the equivalent in Thai Baht. Hurdle one completed. We were then pointed towards the next counter over, where we were met by a man who wanted $72 from us ($30 for Richs visa, $42 for my Canadian one). We told him we had no USD. He told us he’d take Thai Baht instead, but after counting it out we didn’t have enough. We asked if we could pay by card, to which he just laughed and shook his head. Getting desperate, we explained we didn’t have enough money and asked what we could do. Not perturbed at all by this, he told us to leave the airport, get some money from the ATM (he wrote how much we needed in Kip so we knew), and to come back when we had it. Wait, what? Just leave the airport with no visa and then come back with money? Okay. 🤷♀️
So we did. Well, Rich did and I stayed there with the bags, but security was entirely unphased by him walking through with no passport and then returning 10 minutes later. Money in hand, we returned to the man at the counter, who took it and in return gave us back our passports, visas inside. Back through security we went, but properly this time (although there wasn’t much difference), and we were in Laos!
The first thing that was said to us when we arrived at our hostel in Luang Prabang was: “You must be tired from the slow boat”, to which we smuggly replied that we took a flight instead. Our host laughed and told us that that was a good choice as the slow boat and bus are terrible and no one comes in happy after getting off them, and that everyone wastes a day catching up on sleep instead of exploring. We were able to check in, and
then head straight back out again to start wandering around which was nice. It was later afternoon by the time we’d arrived, so we weren’t able to do much except enjoy the night market and get some food, but it was a good way to get our bearings a little bit. It was pretty warm although very cloudy, and before the sun set we took a boat trip down the Mekong river which was cool. There are caves that you can get a boat to; however they’re farther away and we’d read that they weren’t really worth it, so we opted to go for a shorter boat ride along the riverbank to see the surrounding area and how local people live off the land and water.
The next morning we got up and went on a tour to Kuang Si water falls. These falls are one of the main reasons why I wanted to go to Luang Prabang as they are so cool and so beautiful. They’re about 90 minutes outside of the city, and accessible by tour, tuk tuk, or by motorbike. We toyed with the idea of getting a motorbike and driving ourselves, but in the end we booked a tour and I’m so glad we did. The road to the falls is pretty windy and not in great condition, and it would have been a really uncomfortable and slow bike ride to get there. The tour itself wasn’t that expensive (40,000 Kip each), and it meant we didn’t have to navigate and could just relax on the bus. One of the reasons we tend to not do tours is because we like to go at our own pace and find that a lot of tours rush you without giving you enough time. We were pretty surprised at the amount of time we got, and we were able to explore the falls as well as climb up to the top of them. We did have enough time to go for a swim, but we decided to skip the swim (it wasn’t terribly warm), and get lunch instead (typical).
The falls are multi level, with various areas you can swim in. Yes, the water is that blue it’s ridiculous. It has to do with the water filtering through the limestone. Because science. You walk up through the various pools before coming to the big waterfall at the end which is also stunning. From there you can hike up to the top, which took us about 20 minutes. It was dry when we went, but I imagine if it’s wet or raining that the path up to the top would neither be fun nor safe, but it is open all year long.
The views from the top aren’t really anything to get excited by, as it’s mostly obscured by trees and you can’t really see the falls or water at all, but it’s a nice, short hike to do if you’ve got time. We only spent about 10 minutes at the top cause there isn’t anything to do up there, but there is a second path on the other side of the falls that we descended down on, but you can go up or down either side.
It was early afternoon when we got back, and Rich had a job interview via Skype scheduled a couple hours later, and we headed back to the hotel so he could get ready and prepare a bit. Hotel rooms in Asia are very small, and I get bored very easily so rather then distract Rich during his interview I went out and got myself a massage (terrible trade-off, I know). Massage and interview done, we met back up and headed to the river where there are many restaurants set up to eat and enjoy the evening. After so much delicious Thai food, we found the food in Laos to be good but not great, but the beer is cheap and always cold so we can’t complain!
Our last day in Luang Prabang dawned with clear blue skies but not too hot, and we took
the day to explore the city. Luang Prabang was previously the capital of Laos (it seems like everywhere in SE Asia was previously the capital of somewhere), and although not anymore it is still the capital of culture and religion. It has many temples, the royal palace, and also still practices the Alms Giving every morning. Taking place at 5am every morning (No, we did not get up for this), Alms Giving is where all the monks walk through the centre of town and receive food donations from the people of Luang Prabang, and this is what they eat for the day. They are mostly given sticky rice; however, they do receive some meat and other food as well. It’s still a highly respected and revered part of life in Luang Prabang, although foreigners are allowed to observe and participate.
We walked through the royal palace and museum, took in a few temples, and hiked to the top of Mount Phousi, which gives great views of the city and surrounding area. We had booked an overnight bus for that night to take us to Vientiane, and were able to shower and change at our hostel before grabbing some food and heading to the bus station.
It takes about 10 hours to get from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, and after our pretty good experience on the night train in Thailand, we’d decided to try the night bus to get here. Turns out that was a very bad idea. Night buses in Laos are kind of like double decker
buses, in the fact that there are 2 levels of a sort, but that’s where the similarities end. Being 2 people, we were put on the same “berth”, which was a flat area with minimal padding and probably only about 5’5″ in length. It wasn’t any better width wise, as Rich and I could not lay on our backs at the same time due to how narrow it was. Now, for ditty little local people I can see how this set up works, but we couldn’t lay down flat nor could we sit up as we had minimum head space, and it made for a very, very uncomfortable journey. I guess you could say we were lucky, as we got a bed and our bags were stored under the bus, as there were people who were sat on the floor holding their bags the entire way which looked even more uncomfortable then what we experienced.
Needless to say, I was not a happy camper and it made me eternally grateful that we’d flown to Luang Prabang from Thailand. First thing we did once we arrived at our hostel in Vientiane? Booked a flight from Vientiane to Hanoi rather then the 20 hour night bus. Second thing? Closed the curtains and had a nap!
In hindsight, it probably would have been more comfortable to take the day bus with seats. Even though we would have spent the entire day travelling, we would have got a good night’s sleep in a bed and I would have been a lot less grumpy.