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.