Vang Vieng & the jewels of Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng & the jewels of Luang Prabang

As I have mentioned already, Laos is one of the most colourful countries in South-East Asia. I could define it as rough diamond – the less popular destination – among the shiny gems of the continent. Laos is full of surprises, full of wonderful people, mesmerizing landscapes and fabolous cuisine. Each province, each city or village has its own „magic potion”, what enchants you for sure. Below I would like to share with you some essential infos and personal impressions about Vang Vieng together with ideas – must-see things – of Luang Prabang, one of my favourite places in Laos.

The hell in paradise

At first glance Vang Vieng looks like a sleepy little town surrounded by wild rainforests and emerald green mountains, but behind this idyllic scene hide truly sad events. Over the years, this cute town lying on the Nam Song river has become extremely popular among backpackers, however, the blossoming of Vang Vieng turned into a nightmare.

The town offers fairy tale-like places for trekking, biking, while the crystal clear lagoons and the wilderness of the Nam Song is perfect for water-adventures, like tubing down the river or kayaking. At the same time the floating down the water – drunk or enchanted by opiates – led to tragedy: more than 20 people lost their lives. The heavy drinking, the presence of drugs and the violent behaviour of the travelers – being thoughtless of others – effects negatively the everyday life of the locals, destroys this marvelous part of the country.

The labyrinth of lagoons

Dipping your toes into the silvery waters of lagoons is definitely a must. It is perfect for chillin’ after a long night spent in crazy bars of Vang Vieng or for having fun at its finest and playing the role of monkey hanging on rape swings or zipline.

There are three lagoons, which can be easily reached by bike or tuk-tuk. If you want to be more independent, I recommend to hire a bike. The Lagoon 1 is the closest one, so it is pretty crowded almost all day long. There is possibility to buy drinks and food and if you are brave enough to go deep into the pool, you can get some fish pedicure for free. The other two lagoons are a little further away, what means less people and more relaxed ambiance.

Above the clouds

There are countless peaks to conquer, which offer at the end of the trail superb panorama, as icing on the cake. Some of them are ideal for admiring the pinky-gold performance of sunset, while the others are excellent spots for observing as the sleepy valley slowly comes to life after sunrise.

Some of these trails are not for free, a small amount is required to pay, but believe me, it is worth. I have to mention, that many people come for sunset after visiting the lagoons, what means trekking in swimsuit and flip-flops. I have to tell you: it is not the right dress-code to cilmb up. I was pretty naive and I visited the Nam Xay Viewpoint after I was diving with the fishies, so my outfit certainly was not appropriate for hiking, in short: from heart I missed my hiking boots.

The way to the top of the Nam Xay Viewpoint is about 40 minutes (elevation gain 129m), but it can be longer if you do small stops between the „levels”. There are peaceful hidden corners, where you can take a rest or immerse yourself in the rough nature. The view that unfolds before us is simply mind-blowing. The summit provides a 360 ° – truly painting-like – panorama with a surreal surprise at the edge of the cliff: a motorbike placed there is waiting for you to overcome the sky, or just to take your best Insta photo.

It is fabolous as the setting sun dresses the lush landscape in shimmering shades of gold, especially for those who are as sunset-freaks as me. There are fantastic spots for admiring the beautiful scenery, while a small picnic basket takes care of recharging your batteries for the very steep and slippery way down.

My stay in Vang Vieng was pretty short and according to this I gave you just a little taste of this crazy, at the same time, magical place. Whether it is a heavenly good Lao food, a hiking or a pub crawl about, it is worth checking out the town.

The adventurous journey to Luang Prabang

The journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang takes 5-6 hours and bus tickets can be purchased at several tour offices or at the bus station. The view on the way is simply fantastic: the unspoilt, lush greenery and the silvery mist dancing among the mountains takes us into another world. Into the world of rainforests’ invisible wilderness.

The pearl of the River Mekong

The UNESCO Heritage listed town is undoubtedly the country’s treasure chest. Its architecture invites us into the empire of traditional Lao and French colonial style. The classical Lao houses are built of wood or bamboo. In bigger cities they are slowly disappering, however the unique house design of ethnic groups – like the Hmong, lu Mien – can still be admired today.

The other masterpieces – created by human hands – are the richly decorated, gold roofed temples and stupas. Walking through the dusty streets of Luang Prabang we stumble upon temples on every corner. The mysterious, shiny mosaics, the extremely detailed wood-carvings telling ancient stories fascinate me, wherever I go in the world.

The city is not only the perfect „playground” for history-buffs and lovers of Lao architecture. Luang Prabang, surrounded by two rivers – the Nam Khan and the Mekong – is a paradise for those who want to immerse themselves in turquoise waterfalls, want adventure deep in mountains that rise proud towards the river or just capture the best sunset moment while sitting on the Mekong’s shore.

All road leads to Sunrise

Since I am obsessed with glittery sunrises and romantic sunsets, in my case, really every road – each trip – leads to it. And to Rome, of course. In Luang Prabang one of the most popular spots to watch the sun’s mesmerizing dance is the Mount Phousi, located in the city centre.

This is the town’s holy hill providing breathtaking 360°degrees view, what means that we can see from the top the perfect blend of antique and modern, the amazing fusion of Lao and French elements, the harmony of emerald green mountains and rivers embracing Luang Prabang. The Wat Chom Si at the summit is one of the most sacred temples and the golden stupa’s sparkle attracts the eye even down from the city.

The best option is to climb up from the Sisavangvong Road, where the Royal Palace is located. The number of steps from here is 328, while the other path consists with slightly more steps (355). Climbing up the winding staircase you can discover stunning statues, Buddha images and a small grotto with a temple inside. The atmosphere of the fairy tale-like gardens around is simply special. It seems to be an island of tranquility and peace, particurarly if we leave before sunrise – of course flashlight does no harm – tasting the complete silence of the temple gardens hiding in the mist.

The alms-giving ceremony

Before the sun rises the locals are preparing for the alms-giving. From the stalls the enticing smell of coriander and turmeric flies towards the street lamps’ light, while the elderly women with their baskets sit like colourful garlands on the side of the road. At first I didn’t really know, what was going on at this early hour. After a while I saw: the inhabitants of monasteries, the saffron-robed monks were walking along the street to gather their daily meal.

The alms-giving ceremony is a longstanding Buddhist tradition in Laos. It can be seen in several towns and villages of the country and takes place early mornings, as the sun rises. The locals wake up very early in order to prepare food for the monks, as their offerings. This unique, spiritual tradition is not just about gathering food, it has a much deeper meaning: a chance for man to do something good.

It is a wonderful experience to everyone, even if you are not into the regilion. The offerings – mostly rice, fruit and local snacks – can be bought from the stalls. There are some etiquette rules that are essential to know. Keeping distance as well as covering the shoulders, knees and chest is one of the most important conventions. Don’t talk to are touch the monks moreover women must to keep their head lower than the monks. The offering should be given with two hands or the right hand, but never with the left one, which plays the main role in toilet duties.

The liquid gold of Laos

If you love exploring in the world of coffee, immersing yourself in the silky flavours of a hot drink often called liquid gold, Laos is the perfect choice. The country produces two main types: the Robusta, which is cheaper to grow, while the Arabica is of higher quality. The „simplier” Robusta is used for regular coffees and the other one – characterized by richer taste – is a good espresso base. A little twist in the story: the Laotians are still lovers of powdered coffee – nescafe – which is an essential part of their everyday life. Icing on the cake is the huge amount of sugar and condensed milk.

Walking the streets of Luang Prabang you will be lured into these small, fabolous coffee-paradises for sure. The interior is the perfect mixture of Lao architectural elements and the minimalist style. The furniture made of rose and teak wood along with the coffee-maker tools, cups create a special ambiance. If you are not really a coffee-fan, you still can indulge in the yummy bakery products, pastries that pamper you with the tastes of traditional sweets and French finesse.

See, feel, taste

For foodies, no trip in Luang Prabang – as well as in the whole country – is complete without visiting the nightmarkets, where we can get a touch of real local vibe and flavours. It is the ideal place to immerse yourself in the rainbow-like abundance of spices, to soak the essence of the Laotian cuisine and to get a dash of real „Lao-feeling”.

I advice to come here ravenously hungry in order to try as much delicacies as you can. Whether it is meat with unique seasing, the most special vegetables, colourful tropical fruits or tempting sweets, you will find here everything. The Mok Pa (Lao steamed fish dish), the spicy mango salad, the Khao soi (soup with minced pork and fresh aromatic herbs) is a must, while as crowning of your dinner Lao beer or Lao-Lao – our beloved rice whiskey – is the perfect choice.

After the enchanting gastro journey there is another part of the nightmarket to visit: here you can find the endless selection of beautiful hand-made treasures, such as hand-painted linen bags, diaries, traditional clothing, jewelry and Laotian whiskey fermented with baby cobra or scorpion, simply awesome gift or memory.

The turquoise paradise

The Kuang Si Waterfall is located about 30 km away from Luang Prabang and it is accessible by private van, tuk-tuk or motorbike. It is definitely one of the nature’s most beautiful creations charming everyone with its tiered, silvery sparkling pools.

On the way to the waterfalls we saw the cute inhabitants of the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre and rare plants. Along the paths of the green jungle, we heard the soft melody of the cascades, while the lianes hugging the trees whispered their secrets. At the beginning of the ladder-like pools the view is picturesque: The huge „water-steps” look like silky slides and at each level we can take dip in the alluring, azure water. The small employees of this „jungle-wellness” – the fishies doing kind of pedicure and peeling – are slightly larger than in the lagoons of Vang Vieng, so not everyone feels the strenght to jump into the turquise-blue basins.

For those who prefer dry activities, there are super trails in the lush greenery right to the top of the waterfall, with impressive scenery of a huge, milky falls and the water steps in a thousand shades of vibrant blue.

As you see, I collected for you a small, but kaleidoscopic „bunch of flowers” trying to introduce some of Luang Prabang’ treasures. The town and its area offers countless ancient sights – as the history’s prints – as well as emerald green mountains with secret waterfalls and a real paradise for hedonists. But first of all: just slow down and look around. Arrive.

Nong Khiaw: the hidden treasure of Laos

Nong Khiaw: the hidden treasure of Laos

Nong Khiaw situated in Luang Prabang Province is one of the most fairy-tale-like destinations of Northern Laos providing limitless possibilities for all types of travelling. This cute, romantic village surrounded by emerald-coloured mountains captivated me at first sight.

It is the perfect place to enjoy the peace and tranquility lying in a hammock, while the sunset paints the magical Nam Ou river into thousand shades of gold.Nong Khiaw is getting more and more popular, not only among backpackers. It is still kind of a sleeping village, but not for long I guess. Unfortunately.

Anyway, we even had the luck to see this awesome, hidden treasure in all its glory and I collected for you some of the highlights of it.

Dive into taste of Laos

The gastronomy of Laos is very diverse, you can find the traditional Lao dishes on every corner, while each province has its own specialty. The meat-lovers and vegetarians alike can find heavenly good bites.

Nong Khiaw is relatively small village, but restaurants and street food can be found easily on both sides of the river. My very favourite restaurant was located near to the bridge, in a tiny, dusty street, owned by a local family. The restaurant not only with normal tables was furnished, but with corners full with colourful pillows: perfect for chatty nights, while tasting amazing Lao dishes, drinking beer and our beloved Lao Lao. But what should we try sitting between these rainbow-like pillows or walking in the maze of street vendors?

Dive into taste of Laos

The gastronomy of Laos is very diverse, you can find the traditional Lao dishes on every corner, while each province has its own specialty. The meat-lovers and vegetarians alike can find heavenly good bites.

Nong Khiaw is relatively small village, but restaurants and street food can be found easily on both sides of the river. My very favourite restaurant was located near to the bridge, in a tiny, dusty street, owned by a local family. The restaurant not only with normal tables was furnished, but with corners full with colourful pillows: perfect for chatty nights, while tasting amazing Lao dishes, drinking beer and our beloved Lao Lao. But what should we try sitting between these rainbow-like pillows or walking in the maze of street vendors?

Khao Niao – Lao Sticky Rice

I could definitely say: it is the very national food of Laos. The sticky rice is never missing from the table, means the very essential part of the dishes. In daily life of Lao people eating is a rather important social „event” sharing the „princess” of the meals between each other and eating it with fingers.

Tam Mak Hoong – Lao Papaya Salad

It is a mixed salad with green (unripe) papaya, nuts and pungent fermented fish sauce. It can be quite delicious, especially if you are real chilli-lover. I have to tell you: my salad was not seasoned according to my chilli-level. So I ate my salad in tears, hours long, but in the end I survived.

Khao Piak Sen – Noodle Soup

It is mostly clear chicken stock served with hand made rice noodles, germ, fresh herbs, green beans and lime. The other version of this soup is served with sticky rice. My local friend told me, it is one of the most important meal of the Lao people, mainly mornings in order to get something filling.

Mok Bppa – Lao steamed fish

One of my personal favourites is served in banana leaves and is steamed with different fresh herbs like lemon grass, dill, kaffir lime. This colourful dish is typical for Nong Khiaw accompained with sticky rice. If you like fish, it is a must to try this delicacy, such as the Ping Bppa – grilled fish – which is seasoned with lemon grass, garlic and salt. As the village is located by the river, unearthly good fish dishes are provided. Believe me, it would be a shame to miss it!

Khao Piak Sen – Noodle Soup

It is mostly clear chicken stock served with hand made rice noodles, germ, fresh herbs, green beans and lime. The other version of this soup is served with sticky rice. My local friend told me, it is one of the most important meal of the Lao people, mainly mornings in order to get something filling.

Mok Bppa – Lao steamed fish

One of my personal favourites is served in banana leaves and is steamed with different fresh herbs like lemon grass, dill, kaffir lime. This colourful dish is typical for Nong Khiaw accompained with sticky rice. If you like fish, it is a must to try this delicacy, such as the Ping Bppa – grilled fish – which is seasoned with lemon grass, garlic and salt. As the village is located by the river, unearthly good fish dishes are provided. Believe me, it would be a shame to miss it!

Try Lao Lao

I am trying to describe it briefly with – or without – my memories. First of all, Lao Lao is a very popular Laotian rice whisky , which is definitely the emblematic spirit of the country. I could write about the very healthy-classy fruit juices, Lao coffee or beer, but my best memories are connected – somehow – to this „magical” liquid.

It is one of the cheapest spirits all over the world, but it has a quite good quality, often “served” with cobra or scorpion in the bottle. Maybe I can attest: I personally did not have hangover. For more infos I should ask my dear friends…

Lao Lao can be found on every corner of Nong Khiaw, and in every small town or village. Better said, the more away we were from the cities, the more Laotian fun-drink we found. If you do not see it in proper bottles, no worries, you just have to ask for it. Mostly it can be purchased in different plastic or glass bottles from Coca-cola, western alcoholic drinks or water. I got my first one in a cute plastic mineral water bottle. I received it in Muang Khua from a French guy as a gift. It was kind of a question for dating, but anyway: it was a cool present.

Try the herbal steam bath

If you need something relaxing after a long day, trying the traditional herbal steam bath is the perfect choice. We tried it, and we loved it! It is possible to combine it with massage or to book the steam bath only.

It is a tiny wooden house for 5-6 people with two small benches. The refreshing, healthy steam was maden by one of the local ladies. The use of the steam bath was unlimited, but to be honest, 1-1,5 hour is more than enough.

To spend time here was a kind of social activity mixed with detox-relax treatment. It was a nice experience to listen to other travelers’ stories, memories, while slowly disappearing in the mesmerising steam of Laotian herbs.

Try the herbal steam bath

If you need something relaxing after a long day, trying the traditional herbal steam bath is the perfect choice. We tried it, and we loved it! It is possible to combine it with massage or to book the steam bath only.

It is a tiny wooden house for 5-6 people with two small benches. The refreshing, healthy steam was maden by one of the local ladies. The use of the steam bath was unlimited, but to be honest, 1-1,5 hour is more than enough.

To spend time here was a kind of social activity mixed with detox-relax treatment. It was a nice experience to listen to other travelers’ stories, memories, while slowly disappearing in the mesmerising steam of Laotian herbs.

Discover the waterfalls

Laos could be called as a small empire of waterfalls, which are often hiding deep in fabolous, lush rainforests. The more popular ones can be visited alone – like the Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang – but for getting into this marvelous labyrinth of the nature around Nong Khiaw I really advice to do it with a local guide.

One of the very best hiking trails leads to the 100 Waterfalls with fantastic view and several opportunities to take a dip into the turquoise blue water. Here I have to mention, that this tour is more accessible and easier to walk in the dry season, otherwise the flooding can make it extremaly dangerous.

We wanted something less touristy, so we did our trekking trail across small, traditional villages seeing the locals harvesting rice, visiting a small Zen cafe and fruit plantation with NO Wifi:

„Woooww priceless, I want to stay here!”

It was my first thought walking between the papaya trees.

Full with energy after drinking a nice Lao coffee we continued our way in shadows of the sky-reaching trees. After a short walk we reached the small stream, which shows the direction to the hiding Tad Mok Waterfall. Slowly getting to it I had the feeling, I arrived to the paradise: 2-3 other people were around (but not long) and nothing else. The tranquility and the music of the waterfall enchanted me. The lunch spent here – under the winding green lianes, listening to the pure nature – reminded me, that the very simple things are always the very best.

We wanted something less touristy, so we did our trekking trail across small, traditional villages seeing the locals harvesting rice, visiting a small Zen cafe and fruit plantation with NO Wifi:

„Woooww priceless, I want to stay here!”

It was my first thought walking between the papaya trees.

Full with energy after drinking a nice Lao coffee we continued our way in shadows of the sky-reaching trees. After a short walk we reached the small stream, which shows the direction to the hiding Tad Mok Waterfall. Slowly getting to it I had the feeling, I arrived to the paradise: 2-3 other people were around (but not long) and nothing else. The tranquility and the music of the waterfall enchanted me. The lunch spent here – under the winding green lianes, listening to the pure nature – reminded me, that the very simple things are always the very best.

Get lost in the emerald green mountains

The entire country is ideal and outstanding for those obsessed with hiking, but Nong Khiaw provides „all in”. I mean, you can immerse yourself in taste of Lao gastronomy, while enjoying the lush nature, falling in love with Nam Ou river or getting refreshed by the steam bath and massage.

You can book trekking for one or more days with a local guide, but fortunately, there are several trails, which can be explored on your own. The Sleeping Woman Viewpoint has a charming panorama for sunrise. By the way: sitting in the middle of nowhere I was admiring the rolling mountains, from wich, after a while, sleeping faces emerged everywhere. So if you are pretty observant, you can see, that the valley of Nong Khiaw is surrounded by mysterious sleeping beauties on every side. Regarding to the spots for sunset I need to mention, that you have to calculate your time well in order to get off the mountain safely. The other – not so back-breaking – hiking trail leads to the Phadeng Peak with fabolous views above the clouds.

It does not matter, what you will decide for, these miraculous creations of the nature full of adventures will not disappoint you.

Catch the sunset on the bridge of the village

Yes, we arrived to my adored part of activities: capturing the perfect moments of sunset. As I am an uncurable sunset-lover, I was seeking for the best sundown spots while backpacking in Laos. But actually, in Nong Khiaw I did not need to hunt for it.

If you stay in one of the bungalows by the Nam Ou river – as I – you have place like a king to admire the sunset. Especially rocking in a hammock, with a drink in your hands. But still, I preferred to look from the small bridge, as the sun paints the whole landscape in bronze and shining gold.

The bridge is not so crowded, so we can enjoy the twilight to the fullest, taking pleasure from the magical atmosphere of Nong Khiaw, while couple of small fishing boats are floating peacefully on the water. Every time I passed the bridge, I stopped and tried remembering to the smallest detail this hidden gem of Laos. I tried remembering the smiling faces, the shining – full of hope – eyes of the locals, the mesmerising scent of herbs, the sleeping mountains hiding secrets, the colours of Laotian sunset and the Nam Ou river, which was flowing silently under the stars.

Catch the sunset on the bridge of the village

Yes, we arrived to my adored part of activities: capturing the perfect moments of sunset. As I am an uncurable sunset-lover, I was seeking for the best sundown spots while backpacking in Laos. But actually, in Nong Khiaw I did not need to hunt for it.

If you stay in one of the bungalows by the Nam Ou river – as I – you have place like a king to admire the sunset. Especially rocking in a hammock, with a drink in your hands. But still, I preferred to look from the small bridge, as the sun paints the whole landscape in bronze and shining gold.

The bridge is not so crowded, so we can enjoy the twilight to the fullest, taking pleasure from the magical atmosphere of Nong Khiaw, while couple of small fishing boats are floating peacefully on the water. Every time I passed the bridge, I stopped and tried remembering to the smallest detail this hidden gem of Laos. I tried remembering the smiling faces, the shining – full of hope – eyes of the locals, the mesmerising scent of herbs, the sleeping mountains hiding secrets, the colours of Laotian sunset and the Nam Ou river, which was flowing silently under the stars.