Laos

When We Were There: July 23 – August 9, 2009

Places We Visited: Savannahket, Pakse, Si Phan Don Islands, Bolaven Plateau, Vientiene, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang

View all of our posts about Laos here.

Exchange Rate: $1 = 8,500 Laos Kip

WHAT WE DID

Savannahket
This was our landing place after the border bus fiasco that occurred while crossing into Laos from Vietnam. It’s a small town without a lot going on, so we just stayed a day while getting our plans together. We took a walk through town, checking out the church on the square and the Buddhist Temple filled with novice monks. We also enjoyed a grilled chicken lunch from a stand on the river.

Pakse
Pakse itself doesn’t have a lot to offer, but it’s the jumping off point for sights further south. We used it as a base to rent our motorbike and map out our route.

Si Phan Don Islands
Set in the waters of the Mekong on the border with Vietnam, the Si Phan Don Islands were the southernmost destination on our motorbike trip. We spent two nights on Don Khan, enjoying the beautiful landscape of bright green rice paddies. We rented bikes for a day and covered the entirety of both Don Det and Don Khan. We also spent a day on Don Khong, where we made a loop around the island on our motorbike, waving to kids and snapping photos of the many temples.

Bolaven Plateau
Though this is supposed to be a beautiful area of waterfalls and coffee plantations, we really can’t vouch for it. It rained, or more accurately, it poured the entire time we were there, so we spent most our time trying not to skid off the road on our motorbike. We did see two waterfalls, but in the heart of the rainy season, they’re awfully muddy and not so beautiful.

Vientiane
Apparently Vientiane has some wats and stupas worth visiting, but to be perfectly honest, we were sick of wats and stupas at that point, and so we skipped them completely. Instead, we just explored the market, the waterfront, and the National Museum, which is a bit skimpy but does manage to dedicate three of its fifteen rooms to the American Imperialists.

Vang Vieng
We thought about skipping Vang Vieng because most of the descriptions we heard involved the words “drunk teenagers.” The town’s main attraction is tubing down the river, stopping at bars along the way. That held a negative amount of interest for us. Hell, if I want to do that, I’ll go to Texas. But we also heard the landscape of limestone karsts was pretty awesome, so we decided to give it a go and we’re glad we did. We opted for the more civilized river excursion–a combination kayaking and caving trip with Green Discovery, which was a ton of fun. The town itself is pretty ridiculous–bar after bar playing reruns of Friends, or doing Michael Jackson tributes–but there are a couple of nice spots mixed in. It’s a good time spot, and we had a good time.

Luang Prabang
We found Luang Prabang to be a very pleasant town. Though it certainly has become rather popular with the tourists, it still retains a sense of self. While there, we visited Wat Xieng Thong and the Royal Palace, watched a traditional Laos dance performance at the theatre at the palace, climbed Mt. Phou Si for the view, and got up early to observe the monks collecting alms. We also checked out Big Brother Mouse, a local non-profit dedicated to literacy, where we bought some books for ourselves and some to donate to local schoolchildren. In the evenings, we spent a fair chunk of change at the night market. We, which rescues elephants.  also spent a day doing mahout training, or learning to ride an elephant at the Elephant Park, which rescues elephants.

WHERE WE STAYED

Layla’s House (Savannakhet): The room at this quiet hotel was comfortable, appointed like a simple hotel. The room and bathroom were clean, and the staff was kind. 80,000 kip for a double room.

Sabaidee Guesthouse (Pakse): Though this place is popular, we couldn’t figure out why. It was pretty dumpy. The tiny room was mildewed, the toilet didn’t flush, and the walls seemed to be made of cardboard. To top it off, the staff was not at all helpful. 68,000 kip for a double room.

Lankham Hotel (Pakse): We moved into this hotel on the main drag on our return to Pakse, which for 12,000 more kip was much, much nicer than the Sabaidee Guesthouse. The hotel has a variety of rooms of varying sizes and configurations, so ask to see a few before you commit to one. They’re also willing to negotiate on price, so don’t take the first rate. The rooms are clean and comfortable, of your standard budget hotel variety. 80,000 kip for a double room.

Cottage on Si Phan Don Islands: We can’t remember the name of the place we stayed here, but we chose to pass up the insanely cheap places on Don Det for a nicer place on Don Khon. Right on the water, the individuals cabanas were clean and comfy with really nice balconies over the Mekong. Definitely a lot more expensive than the cheap backpacker digs, we found that you get what you pay for and the splurge was worth it to us,, especially because Don Khon is much quieter and less overrun with backpackers than Don Det. To get to the place, cross the bridge to Don Khon, turn right, and you’ll see some nice cottages one the river. 80,000 kip for a private cottage with a double bed.

Villa Kang Khong (Don Khong): This friendly family run place has twelve large rooms in a house that are nicely decorated and are very comfortable. Choose from AC or fan and private bathroom or not. The family was so kind and helpful. A great place to stay. 60,000 kip for a double room with private bathroom.

Sayse Guesthouse & Resort (Tad Lo, Bolaven Plateau): There’s nothing really special about this “resort,” but there’s nothing wrong with it, aside from a slight musty smell, at least in the wet season. The room was spacious, and the resort is basically located right at the falls. We were able to get a slight discount because the place was pretty much empty when we were there. There were some very, very basic cheap hotels in the area, but it was our anniversary so we passed them up. 120,000 for a double room with private bathroom.

Paris Hotel (Vientiane):
Our hotel choices in Vientiane Hotels in Vientiane were cheap and scuzzy or nice and expensive. We spent quite some time looking for something in-between and came up with the Paris Hotel. Though definitely more than we like to pay, it was a nice hotel with mid-level comforts. The only negative was that the promised Internet did not work, but I got them to knock 20,000 off the price because of that. 210,000 kip for a double with private bathroom.

Vang Vieng: I can’t remember where we stayed here, but we got a double with private bathroom for 40,000. It wasn’t on the main strip, but was a short walk away on a road running perpendicular to the river.

Thavisouk Guesthouse (Luang Prabang): The price was right for us at this guesthouse, where we were able to get a comfortable double room with private bathroom and Internet access. We could easily walk everywhere we wanted to go from here, though it was also on a fairly quiet street. 70,000 for a double with private bathroom.

PLACES WE ATE

Pakse Minimart (Pakse): Pakse’s minimart is also a restaurant, with tables set up outside along with a portable stove. The menu is not extensive, but covers your basic Lao foodgroups, and the meals are good and inexpensive.

Jasmin (Pakse): This Indian restaurant serves tasty authentic dishes in a friendly atmosphere. They can also help you arrange bus transportation, and so are rather popular with the tourist crowd.

Lankham Noodle Shop (Pakse): On a rainy day, the huge bowls of soup here were just what the doctor ordered. A popular place with locals, the meals are simply but tasty and inexpensive.

Bakery (Si Phan Don Islands): The one and only bakery on Don Det offers some tasty treats. The cinnamon buns are particularly good. Though one might think a bakery would be open early in the morning, we found that they didn’t really begin to get moving until about 10 a.m. at best, though noon is a better bet.

Tad Lo Lodge (Bolaven Plateau): Catering to the resort tourist, this restaurant serves Western-style food at Western-style prices. Service, however, is rather poor. Though the menu is very limited, not everything on it was even available when we were there, and we practically had to beg someone to take our order, and we then had to wait over an hour for our food to arrive. It was good, but not really worth it.

Scandinavian Bakery (Vientiene): A popular tourist hang out, the Scandinavian Bakery does good breakfasts, desserts, coffees, and the like. It also has wi-fi, newspapers, and comfy tables and chairs, making it a good place to veg out when you need a break.

Japanese Restaurant (Vientiene): I’m not even sure if this restaurant had a name, but we stumbled across it while wandering around. It’s a tiny place that seems to be part of the family home, but they do some very good sushi.

Organic Farm Restaurant (Vang Vieng): This yummy place delivers great local dishes made with fresh, tasty ingredients. Everything is made from scratch, so you do have to wait a bit, but it’s worth it. Mulberries are the specialty here and appear in tea, shakes, and more.

Street Food (Vang Vieng): For a cheap meal, check out the sandwiches and other goodies offered by street vendors. We enjoyed them.

Australian Bar (Vang Vieng): Vang Vieng is simply packed with tourist bars, most of which differ only by what episode of Friends they’re currently playing. It’s not really our scene, but we did have fun at the Aussie Bar. They have pretty good burgers, and we ended up in a really fun conversation with other guests. If you’re in Vang Vieng, you have to let go of hangups about authentic experiences and just have fun.

Street Food (Luang Prabang): Though Luang Prabang does not suffer from a shortage of restaurants, we ate most of our meals on the streets. We loved the chicken sandwiches, getting rather well acquainted with one lady who we went to for all our sandwich needs. She was very sweet and made tasty sandwiches to boot. We also enjoyed the vegetarian buffet that sets up at the night market, and the offerings of another woman who did varying noodle dishes.

NOTES

*Before we left for our trip, a number of people who had been to Laos described it to us as a sort of undiscovered gem. We found this not to be true. Laos has definitely been discovered. Certainly, there are less touristed spots–the only tourists we saw at the places we stopped while traveling via moto down to the islands were on buses flying past–but tourists are not rare. As a result, prices have definitely gone up from what we had heard and guidebooks said. Additionally, we noticed a certain wariness among some of Laos population toward tourists, especially in very touristy spots such as the Si Phan Don islands and Vang Vieng.

*In spots where tourists are not common, you have to be patient and flexible to get things figured out. On our moto trip, we repeatedly pulled over at food stands, where everyone there basically just stopped and stared. Though we thought it must be obvious what we wanted, apparently it wasn’t. We often had to do a lot of sign language–pointing at plates of food, making eating gestures, and pulling out money–to get anyone to do anything but stare. In some instances, we never got past the starting and just had to continue on and try a new spot.

*If you want to rent a moto like we did, try the moto shop next to the Lankham Hotel and Noodle Shop. Some places won’t let you take their motos as far as we wanted to go, but these people didn’t care where we took them. Their motos were also in good shape, and they were friendly and patient as they showed us how the bikes worked. Their prices were also good.

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