We've been in Laos for about a week and a half now, and we have seen some amazing works of nature! Laos truly is a gem of a country, land-locked between the more-traveled Thailand and Vietnam. It is a country of dramatic limestone mountains and cliffs, gorgeous green valleys, and beautiful, simple villages of happy people.
Dramatic limestone mountains and gorgeous green valleys... didn't I tell you?
While the country of Laos is a bit further off the beaten trail, the backpacker trail that does exist through Laos has very deep ruts - fewer people travel here, but the ones that do generally follow a very similar route at a very similar pace. It sort of feels like getting caught in a swift current of a narrow river. If you just let the flow take you, you will keep seeing the same people that were on the boat with you for 2 days from the border crossing, and you'll see them in every single town every single day the whole way through Laos. So you have to work a bit to get out of the current, but once you do, it's a gorgeous country to travel!
Nik and I have managed to do and see some amazing stuff in the time we've been here! In the otherwise-uninteresting tourist city of Luang Prabang, we met up with some friends and went out to the impressive Kuang Si waterfall, where we got to do a bit of hiking and swimming. In the next uninteresting-tourist city of Vang Vieng, we were able to rent some climbing gear and head out on our own to a nearby mountain to do some phenomenal rock-climbing! After a quick visit to the capital city of Vientiene (and a celebration for the future of our country!), we finally broke out of the swift tourist current to a lighter flow... that carried us straight onto a river through a 7-km cave!!
Kuang Si waterfall outside of Luang Prabang
It's been a rich experience thus far, and we're only just beginning our "off the beaten track" part of Laos!
Heading off the beaten track, through rice paddies, to the mountain for some rock climbing!
Rock climbing in Vang Vieng
The town of Vang Vieng has no soul - it is just a tourist stop between cities, where the food is terrible and overpriced (by Laos standards), 'Friends' episodes are playing in every restaurant, and bars have been developed to cater to the whities that want to get drunk with other whities.
However, the area around Vang Vieng is gorgeous! Impressive jutting limestone mountains, endless rice paddies, and incredible rock-climbing! So Nik and I found a shop in town from which to rent climbing gear, and off we went to the nearest mountain. After a long wander, zig-zagging through rice fields and getting caught in a rainstorm, we finally made it to Pha Daeng mountain, where the limestone rock was dry and ready for climbing! We climbed until the sun went down, and the next day, we went back out and did again! Our second day proved to be even better - the sun was out and lighting up the gorgeous landscape, and we did some awesome climbs that just left us feeling wonderfully satisfied the night and wonderfully sore the next morning. Check out the pictures, because I can't really describe it the way the images can.
Incredible rock climbing!
Kong Lo cave and homestay
After moving through the capital city, where we ate great food, celebrated the election results, and got glorious massages to work out our climbing soreness, we broke off the beaten trail into the countryside. Our voyage began with several hours on "the local bus," on which a bathroom stop was just pulling over on the side of the road and letting everyone claim a spot in the bushes. Then we caught a "sawngthaew" through the hills to our destination - this is a truck that carries passengers, goods, recycling, animals, petrol containers, and whatever else needs to be moved from one place to another. One of our sawngthaew experiences involved the tranport of 30 people (mind you, these are essentially just pick-up trucks), a basket of chickens, several crates of soda bottles, and a bag of ducks. It was remarkable!
Everybody pile in!
The next day, we headed out to Tham Kong Lo, where a little motorized canoe took us up river and into the mouth of a cave... which extended for 7 km through a mountain and out the other side!! 7 km of blackness, stalagtites, immensely huge caverns. Some of the caverns were probably 50-60m high, and up to 80 or 90 meters wide! The headlamps wouldn't reach the top, it just felt like we were outdoors at night on a wide open river. Such a strange feeling!
Heading into the mouth of the cave and into the darkness
40 minutes later, we came out the other end, on the opposite side of the mountain range, where it was raining! Bright and sunny where we went in, rainy where we came out. Truly an amazing cave - I can't imagine being the first to float through that! You'd think you were lost in the heart of the earth forever!
After our cave trip, it was getting on near dark, and with no towns within an hour's drive, a homestay in the nearby village is the standard option after seeing the cave. So Nik and I stayed with a wonderful Laos family who spoke not a word of English, but fed us, housed us, and laughed with us as we attempted a few phrases in Lao. Our dinner was a fantastic simple meal of noodles, vegetables, and lots of sticky rice with chilli dipping sauce. Our family set up a wonderful fort-like sleeping area for us in the open-air living area - mats and blankets on the floor with a mosquito net around us, "walled off" by wonderful pink sheets. There was no running water, and the toilet was a community squatty across the muddy paths, about 30 meters away. It was all a great experience, and the full and complete language barrier was pretty spectacular. But it was great to see the real Laos life - simple, caring, and happy.
The village we stayed in for a night - simple and happy.
So far, Laos is proving to be a wonderful experience!