So there we were…cruising down the calm waters of the Nam Om river being greeted by the smiles of the Lao people from the riverbanks.
We had heard nightmare stories about the norther border crossing from Vietnam into Laos, but were pleasantly surprised to find the trip fairly easy and surrounded by stunning scenery. After spending the night in a small town on the Nam Om river we climbed aboard a boat for the ride south to Muang Ngoi Neua. Nestled in a big green valley right along a picturesque section of the river, it was a wonderful introduction to Laos. With no cars or motorbikes, the one dirt road town was the type of place you never want to leave. With surrounding hills covered in walking trails to other remote villages and a wonderful stretch of river to stare at, we would have stayed forever if we hadn’t needed to find a source to get more cash. Heading even further south, we spent one additional night in Nong Khiaw, another small town on the bank of the river, which had just as spectacular views as the town before it.
Unfortunately we needed an ATM to get some money and had to travel to Luang Prabang to find one. We happened to be in town during the start of the Lao New Year where being blessed with a splash of water is a symbol of good luck. Throughout the years this tradition has evolved into a huge water fight where kids (and adults) splash people walking or driving past. The festival had not even fully started but we had a hard time wandering the city without getting soaked. We had to find alternate routes to our hotel to avoid the mob of water throwers on the main street; the city had become a free for all with locals tossing buckets and Farangs using high-powered supersoakers.
Luang Prabang turned out to be one of our favorite cities in South East Asia. Its laid back vibe, well-preserved architecture, great bars and restaurants, and wonderful markets were charming to walk day and night. Again, we could have stayed longer, and wanted to stay for the beginning of the festival, but our hotel pulled some shady business on us and demanded more money than originally agreed on, so it was time to move on.
We wanted to explore more areas south of Luang Prabang but given our timeline to catch a flight out of Bangkok in a few weeks, we stayed in the north and focused on an area on the way back to Thailand. Luang Namtha is in the north-west part of the country and while the town is not much to write about, the surrounding hillside villages are a great place to spend a few days. We signed up for a mountain bike/hiking village homestay trip where we road 30 km the first day down (and up) a bumpy, rocky, dirt road to the village. Then we stayed overnight with the small hill-tribe, and explored the jungle by foot the following day. It was wonderful to get some up close and personal time visiting the village and staying overnight. While we had our own hut with other people on our tour, the head of the village came over at night to welcome us and share a fresh batch of lao lao (local rice whisky). Even though we couldn’t understand him, we all shared the communal straw and had a fun night together.
One thing we really liked about our tour was that about 30% of the money paid went back to the village. Many of the tour agencies in Luang Namtha are regulated so that each village in the surrounding hills doesn’t see tourists more than twice a week and the villages where tourists do stay, rotate for each trip so all the villages can benefit if they want to be part of the program. This process was something that really appealed to us since in some countries visiting a “remote” village can feel like human safari with no authenticity (much like the villages in Sapa in the north of Vietnam).
After our time in Luang Namtha, we crossed back into Thailand to start working our way to Bangkok to catch a flight to Bali to meet our good friends. We did not spend as much time in Laos as we liked and we will be going back some day as it was our favorite country in all of South East Asia!
- Volunteering some of our time to help people in Luang Prabang practice their English. A wonderful organization called Big Brother Mouse opens up their office for travelers to come and chat with locals who would like to work on their English each morning.
- Our boat rides down the Nam Om river, they were all spectacular
- Being part of the new year festivities of water throwing throughout Laos
- Visiting the Kuang Si waterfalls – easily of the most beautiful waterfalls we have ever seen
- Having to leave this wonderful country after only a few weeks, we didn’t get to see nearly as much as we would have liked…but now we have an excuse to come back!
- Taking a very uncomfortable nine-hour bus ride – Becky had to squeeze into a seat she barely fit on and Jason’s seat had no back on it