Gap Year Days 281 – 289
We decided to go to Laos without spending a whole lot of time thinking about what we would do once we got there. I had thought we would have plenty of time to research, but we got on the plane just as clueless. Although I am trying hard, totally winging it is not natural for me! (I can imagine those who know me madly nodding their heads and thinking about my spreadsheets and control freak nature!)
This meant as soon as we arrived at our hotel I needed to research – and ended up spending not only the first evening but all of the next day too, researching! Okay, so maybe there was some lazing by the pool, drinking cocktails and an afternoon nap involved too, but a full day of R&R was just what we needed to charge our batteries again to deal with the heat and humidity that we were now experiencing in Laos. It seemed we were going from one extreme to the other after the cold and wind and rain of Vietnam.
There’s not exactly a huge amount to do in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Our first outing was how I usually like to do it, on foot. I like to get my bearings this way, and I find that I see things that I would otherwise miss. In this case it was the Presidential Palace of Laos. I knew nothing about this building, but discovered later that it was originally supposed to be the royal palace, but while it was being built, the royal family was deposed. Now it’s just used for official government functions. We couldn’t go through the gates to have a good look, but the building was impressive.
From there we made our way to what is surely the most impressive attraction in town – the Patuxay Monument . This is often referred to as Vientiane’s Arc de Triumphe, which is kind of ironic since the monument was built to commemorate the independence of Laos from France. I see the resemblance to the French arch, but personally I like this one in Laos a whole lot more.
After a morning of wandering the heat started to get to us and we began the 2km trek back to our hotel. I saw another monument called That Dam marked on Google Maps and we made a detour to what we thought might be a temple. It turned out to be a stupa. A very old, overgrown stupa in fact. Local legend has it that this stupa was originally protected by a seven headed serpent. It is also called the Black Stupa.
As the sun started to go down we were sufficiently recovered enough to head out again. We visited the night markets to pick up a couple of things we needed and to find some food for dinner. The markets are a decent size, and contain all of the usual fare, from clothes to electronics to souvenirs and food. They were quite busy when we were there, and it was clearly not all tourists, but a good mix of locals too.
The next morning was spent visiting Buddha Park. Essentially this is a display of a whole pile of Buddhist statues. It takes about an hour to get to Buddha Park by local bus from Vientiane, but is cheap and relatively easy. The statues are all a bit quirky and weird, and there is a huge dome that can be climbed to give views over the park.
We saw a lot of building of new facilities going on, and it looks like this is becoming a more popular place to visit with visitors to Laos. But don’t worry, it has a long way to go before it could be considered crowded.
Lunch at the restaurant was cheap and tasty. Don’t expect five star food here, but good honest local foods are here In abundance. The restaurant is also expanding, building private dining pavilions that overlook the mighty Mekong River that forms the border with Thailand.
Want more information about how to get to Buddha Park? Check out for my dedicated post here.
Once we got back into Vientiane, we swapped buses and made our way to visit the huge golden stupa at That Luang Tai Temple. This was the first of these impressive gold structures we had come across and we were suitably awestruck. It’s worth having a look around the whole temple complex if you are already there and see some of the other statues and buildings too.
It was here I had one of those terrible events in the life of a travel blogger. I got the dreaded “Memory Full” message on my camera, and hadn’t picked up a spare SD card. Thinking back, I realised that yes, it had been a while since I had started using the one I had. I spent a few hours that night going back through my photos and deleting any that were bad or duplicates to free up enough space to get me through a few more days until I could find a camera store. There didn’t seem to be a huge supply of them in Laos.
Luang Prabang was our next stop, and I didn’t want to spend a whole day getting there on the bus, so we took advantage of cheap local flights and did the hop in an hour or two instead.
The place we stayed at was a little out of the city centre, but there was a shuttle bus into town each evening to visit the night markets, so after an hour or two by the pool we jumped on the bus for our first taste of Luang Prabang – literally. We were dropped off right at the end of the night markets, and were immediately assaulted by the delicious smell. We resisted for a while, but soon sat down at a pavement table of a cute cafe and filled up.
The night markets here in Luang Prabang are not the usual cheap clothes and electronics and knick-knacks, these were more for souvenirs and sold Lao traditional crafts as well. There were clothes in traditional designs, teas and coffees, soaps and oils, paintings, wood carvings and bags – and much more besides. I found one of my favourite souvenirs here – fish sandals! These were hilarious and if I had room to carry them I would have definitely bought a pair for a laugh.
In the morning we borrowed bikes from our hotel and rode around town looking at the many temples and the Royal Palace. We also tested out a few of the local coffee shops and cafes. They really do have some good ones here. Luang Prabang feels so relaxed and laid back. There are tourists here, but it’s not crowded. It feels like the city is on the edge of the jungle with lots of green areas around and that with the two rivers running through town translates to the relaxed feel of the place.
After our usual afternoon dip in the pool, we ventured into town by foot across the bamboo bridge. These temporary bridges are only in place in the dry season when the water is low and not flowing too quickly. They are built again each year at the end of the wet season so people on foot do not need to go all the way around to the main road bridge. There is a small fee to cross that is the income for the family that builds and maintains the bridge each year.
As the sun went down we climbed up to the top of Mt Phousi. There are a lot of steps to the top, and we were running late so we’re hurrying as much as we could. By the time we got to the top I was well worn out. Apart from the sunset, there is also a temple at the top of the hill and Buddhist statues decorate the path on the way up. It was quite crowded at the top as there really isn’t a lot of room and every tourist in town seemed to be up here to watch the sunset, but the view is worth it.
On another day we joined a tour to hike to the Kuang Si waterfall. The hike was about ten kilometres through small local villages, farmland and forests. Most of the walk was relatively easy, but there were some shorter, more difficult sections. We approached the waterfalls from the top, and the last section was to climb down the hill along side them.
Since it is possible to drive to the Kuang Si waterfalls, it is set up as a major tourist attraction in the area. Lots of people were swimming in the pools at the bottom of the falls, and while I wouldn’t exactly say it was crowded, it definitely wasn’t a secluded waterfall to enjoy with no one else around. We didn’t swim in the pools. We were hot and sweaty after hiking, but after sticking my toes in the water, I knew I was not getting in there – it was too cold!
Near the main gates – where we exited but most others entered – there is a sanctuary set up for bears that have been rescued. According to the signage these ones were Moon Bears, but I had never heard of those before. I have since discovered Moon Bears are also called Asian Black Bears, which is what I had known them as. The bears seemed to have relatively large enclosures and looked relaxed – the conditions appeared to be much better than some other places we have come across on our travels.
Outside the gates a small market place has sprung up thanks to the tourism. We picked up some tasty snacks and stopped into a cafe for a drink – and experienced the slowest service I think we have ever had. It was almost comical by the end of it, with our guide waiting for us, and we still didn’t have our coffee after 30 minutes of waiting. Luckily they did take away!
We were in Luang Prabang for Australia Day, so sort out an Aussie pub so Simon could watch the cricket match that is traditionally played in our home town of Adelaide on Australia Day. This year it was Australia playing England, and the Australians hadn’t been doing so well in the one-day form of the game recently, so we joked that it would be a short match. We got to the bar about half an hour after the game started – to find England had got off to a terrible start, and the game was pretty much already over!
We watched for a while, but soon moved on to a place we had read about – Utopia! This place is a cafe/bar/nightclub that almost everyone visits. During the day it is laid back with views over the river. There are cushions for lounging on and visitors are encouraged to order a drink and relax for as long as they would like. In the evenings the atmosphere (apparently – we were there in the afternoon) turns more into a party, going on well into the night.
The best thing I did during our stay in Luang Prabang was to get up before the sun on two of our mornings to watch the monks collecting alms. (I actually got up three mornings, but I was a little too late on the third!) The tradition of the monks walking the streets to receive offerings from the locals is still alive and well. These offerings form the food that the monks live off. They eat only twice a day, in early morning then again in the evening.
This was where staying outside of the city centre and was fantastic. I had heard horror stories of tourists getting in the faces of the monks with their cameras, being disrespectful, noisy, and generally not well behaved during this event which locals still take very seriously. It is their daily life, not a tourist attraction! The different groups of monks walk through all of the neighbourhoods, so there is no need to go into the city centre to see them. I stayed at our hotel, and on the first morning I was the only tourist I could see in either direction. I hadn’t though much about what to expect, but I was really surprised to see at least 150 monks come past our hotel. The most senior monks lead the procession, with the youngest boys bringing up the rear. Some of the boys, I’m guessing, wouldn’t be much more than ten years old. I loved seeing the reverence both the monks and the local people showed during this activity that happens every morning.
The second time I saw the monks it was raining hard, but still the monks were walking with bare feet and collecting their food. Two of the other guests from the hotel wanted to participate in the alms-giving, and watching the preparation they went through was also interesting. If I had known that this was something the hotel would help me participate in, I probably would have joined in.
I wasn’t so sold on Vientiane. It was good to visit once, but there is not a whole lot to do there. Luang Prabang, on the other hand, I would happily visit again. I have heard good things about Vang Vieng too, and would like to go back to Laos to visit there too.
Laos is cheap. We were still in the land of meals with alcoholic drinks for $10-$15AUD – less if you stick purely to street food. Luang Prabang had a great mix of healthy cafes with vegan/vegetarian foods, western style coffee shops with delicious French-influenced pastries and traditoinal Lao food.
Our hotel in Vientiane had great wifi, but everywhere else in Laos, from our hotel in Luang Prabang to cafes to airports, had bad at best wifi. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but it was always slow.
We used the public buses in Vientiane, but it was difficult to find information about them beforehand. We basically just turned up at the bus station then read the signs – which actually were really helpful – and asked around to find the buses. Some people in Laos were really helpful with great English, others not so much, but we got there in the end.
S Park Design Hotel
40 Dongnasok Road, Ban Nakham, 01000 Vientiane, Laos
$58USD ($73AUD) per night including breakfast
Le Vang Bua Villa
Ban Meuang Nga, 01000 Luang Prabang, Laos
$59USD ($74AUD) per night including breakfast
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.