South East Asia Part 2: Laos

10 Dec

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Laos is a bloody beautiful country – the scenery, the food, the people. It’s become increasingly tourist-heavy in certain parts over the past decade, however its charm hasn’t disappeared yet. The way of life in Laos is incredibly laid back – everything is on ‘Laos Time’, which basically means something which would take 5 minutes in London takes 15 in Laos. So, say sa-bai-dee to Laos.

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Oh, and it goes without saying, but try Beer Lao. I hate beer, REALLY hate it, but Beer Lao is a rice Beer and it’s wonderful… and easier to get than cola in Laos. Everything is sponsored by the Beer and it can be gotten, literally, anywhere.  East Street (nr. Tottenham Court Road) not only sell the beer in the UK, but they let me buy full bottles of the beer to take home with me.

Vientiane
EAT: Makphet is a wonderful little place which a guy on my tour wanted to seek out. We hunted it down (it’s tucked away) and it was SO worth it. The restaurant trains young people, who would otherwise be on the streets, to learn the art of serving and cooking food. The young people working there are really sweet – clearly nervous and very attentive. The place is bright and airy with a lovely outside seating area and lots of lovely air con inside.

And the food is wonderful: the curries are amazing and they cater to veggies and vegans too. I went for a green lemongrass curry – it was VERY hot, but that’s what I wanted. I ate it too quickly to actually take a photo though (sorry). If you want less heat, they’ll cater to you too. It’s absolutely worth a visit – great food being made for a great cause.

IMG_5800 SEE: The  C.O.P.E Visitor Centre is about a 45 minute walk from the river in Vientiane. Flag down a tuk tuk and go. A great exhibition which really opens your eyes to the horror that the people of Laos went through, and continue to go through, due to the American bombing of Laos. An absolute must-do if you want to find out about the history of Laos.

The Americans ‘officially’ never entered Laos. However, they still managed to drop hundreds of millions of cluster bombs on Laos, with around 80 million still unexploded. The C.O.P.E Centre help to fund prosthetic limbs for people who have been affected by these unexploded bombs and the exhibitions tells a sobering story about how the people of a country which is little known, but is officially the most bombed country in history, are still being affected by the Vietnamese War.

SEE: Buddha Park has no history. It’s not political and wasn’t created for any grand purpose. It’s simply a park, full of aging Buddha statues, which was created by a rich old man.

IMG_5802 It’s a little bit of a mission to get there (a 40 minute tuk tuk ride to be exact) but it’s worth a visit. There is what seems like dozens of greying stone Buddha’s and other statues in the park and you can wander down to the end of the park and watch people working in the rice fields too. Definitely climb up the huge globe structure at the front of the park. It’s a tough(ish) climb and totally violates all health and safety regulations we have in the UK, but that’s part of the fun.

SEE: Ok, so there’s a lot to see in Laos, so I’ll keep this short and sweet.  The video below shows you the absolute madness that is the 6pm aerobics class that takes place by the Mekong River every night. I recommend doing as I did and finding a rooftop bar opposite and letting the screeching serve as a backdrop to an ice-cold cocktail.  And you have to visit the night market. There’s lots on offer and the best Beer Lao tops I saw in the whole of Laos are on sale here. Definitely worth a wander.

Vang Vieng
EAT: Vang Vieng is as touristy as you’re going to get in Laos. The Nam Song river is where Gap Yahs (and people less included to do shots and coke like me) flood to go tubing. However, we’ll move onto that later. There’s one eatery in Laos which is worth shouting about and it’s confusingly called the Luang Prabang bakery and it’s host to lots of yumminess. Oreo cupcakes, croissants, cinnamon buns (these were GREAT), sandwiches… it’s a must visit if you need goodies to get you through a long bus journey. And seeing as everything in Laos revolves around rice, it’s nice to give wheat a chance.

IMG_5841 SEE: Tubing. It’s known as a reckless thing to do because people get drunk and float down a river and some died. And tubing isn’t about that. It’s not about getting so drunk you can’t control yourself or the current. Tubing is the most fun when you’re with a group of people, you’re a little merry thanks to Bar 2 on the river and then you continue on your way. Do it, definitely do it. And do it with friends. But don’t get trashed – you’ll miss the scenery, you’ll forget floating down the river and the experience just won’t be as good.

IMG_5830 SEE: Rather than head straight to the river, head to the Blue Lagoon. The drive to the bridge is as beautiful as the lagoon itself. You’ll take a dirt road through small villages, see the towering mountains surrounding you and you’ll drive up to a beautiful, incredibly blue, lagoon. It’s a place you can go for a few hours – grab yourself a fresh coconut there, a Beer Lao and jump into the lagoon.

Luang Prabang
EAT: Lauang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And it’s absolutely stunning. The French colonial architecture, the stunning Wats, the water lilies, the markets, the river and a sunset view you won’t believe. The night market is lovely – definitely worth visiting. However, the street food (£10k and £15k kip) is not worth it at all. The food is greasy and not that well cooked.
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The best thing to eat in Laung Prabang are sweet rice cakes (above). It’s a small stall just to the west end of the night market.  They’re dairy and gluten-free (AMAZING) and they’re divine. Served in a banana leaf, it’s the perfect snack while wandering around the town. And they’re so easy to make. Just whip up rice flour, coconut milk, a little caster sugar and I throw in some desiccated coconut to make them extra yummy. Thing is, to get the shape you have to use a special pan with hollow dips in. If you want to know how to make them just get in touch and I’ll give you my recipe and a link to the pan!

CIMG1293 SEE: When I go travelling, it’s usually for the wildlife. I did a lot of research to make sure that I found somewhere where the elephants aren’t abused in Laos and Thailand and the Elephant Village Sanctuary . From what I saw, the elephants are treated well here. When riding the elephant, if they start misbehaving they’re tapped to make them stop, but nothing cruel. They are well fed and they seem happy. We got to ride the elephants on land and through the water, as well as feed them too. Definitely sit on the elephant rather than the seat – it’s scary but fun.

IMG_6106 SEE: As part of my half day trip to the elephant sanctuary I also got to go to the Tad Sae waterfall – it’s only accessible by boat, so it was a nice extra. I’d always water to visit these falls and it was SO worth it. You can climb over them, the water is cool but not cold and the falls are beautiful. I mean, LOOK at them! There’s also the opportunity, if you pay extra, to ride the elephants through the waterfalls. Personally, I think just diving in yourself and relaxing as the falls crash around you is good enough. I went at the start of November, so the falls weren’t too full-on to swim in but there was a good current so they weren’t dried up.

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SEE: Wat Phu Si is up a LOT of steps. In the heat, the steps very nearly killed me. But, I made it and as a result took the photos above.

Start to climb the steps half an hour before sunset so you have time to get up there, cool off and get your camera out. Wat Phu Si offers unparalleled views of the town and that sunset is really incredible. If it doesn’t convince you to walk up a zillion (possible exaggeration) steps then I don’t know what will.

The Mekong River Trail
EAT: For the last two days in Laos I travelled up the Mekong River, 8 hours a day, by public slow boat (below). For 90% of the time, my view was the below (not too shabby). But in the evenings we stopped at small villages on the riverside to rest up for the day of sitting on a boat ahead.

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One of these villages is called Huay Xai and there’s a tree house style restaurant called Daauw Home. It’s half way up the temple hill – turn left and you’ll see it on the right hand side. The staff are lovely – friendly, happy to let you relax around a wood fire and they cook everything in a wood burning oven. Yummy. The food is good too! Pizza is lovely, but the chicken looked really delish. In a small town with not that many options, this is a wonderful choice. We accidentally spent hours here.

Obviously there’s a whole lot more to Laos than I’ve written here. Basically – buy a Beer Lao. Sit down in the shade. Relax, chill and do nothing. And then, get some delicious food, wander to a night market and fall asleep ready for a day of glorious nothingness the next day. Or, jump on an elephant, explore waterfalls and trek out to out-of-the-way Buddha parks like me. And. of course, see how many Buddhas you can spot in the space of 15 minutes.

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